I’ve finally got a chance to post highlights from this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, which ended last weekend. Now in my fourth year attending the Festival, I’ve grown a bit weary of the shopping and eating along the Festival’s primary (and highly commercialized) Yonge and Queen streets, so I opted to stay in Kensington Market this year, a more bohemian and eclectic neighborhood next door to Chinatown, thoroughly enjoying its outdoor espresso bars, fruit stands, and funky eateries. (Hungary Thai, anyone? And no, that’s not a misspelling.)
As usual, the real highlight was meeting up with so many online friends; interested readers should never hesitate to shoot me an email regarding any future festival rendezvous.
My top ten films (in terms of staying power, today) and one revival, in viewing order:
Romance of Astrea and Celadon
It is rumored that this may be 87-year-old Rohmer’s final movie (a decision he affirms in the massive Criterion box set released last year), and if so this is a delightful, accomplished, auteurist mark to end on; fare he well. Shot in the bucolic French countryside, it has all the visual flair we expect from his other (rare) period pieces (Is this is the first Rohmer film to make extensive use of generous dissolves rather than straight cuts?), and the dramatic structure of his Moral Tales: a romantic but naive young shepherd (Celadon) pledged to one woman (Astrea), is temporarily distracted by another; Astrea rebukes him, and in order to reunite with her and remain true to his principles (expressed as a kind of moral/religious subplot), Celadon must stumble through a period of confused–even absurd–passivity. Roger Ebert once accurately described Rohmer as “a Catholic intellectual who wears his faith lightly, but in all weathers,” and this film contains several lengthy discourses on faith, love, and fidelity, but like the filmmaker’s best works it does so with an unfailing eye for physical beauty and the desires of the flesh. It’s also increasingly comical in tone, ending on an uplift perfectly rendered and richly deserved.
The Mourning Forest
38-year-old Naomi Kawase has been a shining light to fans of contemporary Japanese cinema since the ’90s, and her sensitive, highly personal, and formally inventive works have much to say about identity, family, and the marks left on our lives by people both intimate and absent. Like her early documentaries, the form of her latest film is beautifully searching and contemplative. Though it delves into larger questions and touches on ethical issues, its force lies in its ability to evoke the inner life of its mourning characters adrift in a perceptual haze of conflicting emotions while encountering incidents that are at once confusing, sad, comical, frightening and surreal. At a remote, rural institution, a young attendant who lost a child is placed in charge of an elderly man who lost his wife, and the film’s drama revolves around their need to connect with each other and with life. But this is far from a pat narrative; it’s a quietly existential film composed entirely of impressionable moments–snatches of conversations, a painting class, playing hide-and-seek among rows of crops, touching and letting go–that Kawase sensitively builds to evoke a frame of mind. “What does is mean to be alive?” someone asks, and the question echoes over much of the film’s limited but evocative action. Once the two protagonists venture into the nearby woods, the film becomes a nearly dialogue-less meditation on human frailty and the grandeur and cycles of life and death that permeate nature. My favorite moment is when the characters stumble upon a dead tree towering in the forest and kneel–exhausted–before it, a scene impossible to describe but as filled with feelings of life and sanctity, attachment and love, mourning and loss, acceptance and serenity as most feature length films I’m likely to see this year.
I had high hopes for the cinematic adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s endearing graphic novels of her youth under the Shaw and during the Iranian Revolution and subsequent war with Iraq, her emigrated and difficult life among European slackers, and her return to her family under religious totalitarianism. Thankfully the film not only maintains the novels’ distinctive pen-and-ink aesthetic and wry slice-of-life perspective, but translates them to the screen in imaginative, deeply engrossing ways. The film is yet another standout in a year rife with ambitious animated films like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Tekkonkinkreet, and Paprika, but for my money it’s the most consistent, humanist, and historically relevant of them all. Far from a cynical dissection of Iranian culture, the film–like the books–celebrates the Iranian people’s vibrant, progressive, and diverse passions developed over the past millennium. Despite its stylized design, the film projects an infectious, modern sensibility (young Marjane’s dreams are filled with dialogues with God and Karl Marx just as her days are filled seeking bootleg rock ‘n roll tapes) and a universal spirit that should help counter the lack of human imagery and abundance of negative diplomatic propaganda that permeates the Western world in regards to Iran. Like Kawase–who is her age–Satrapi is a young woman with plenty to say about her own cultural heritage. I’m really glad this film has distribution from Sony Classics, and look forward to its reception by those as yet unfamiliar with the intelligence, wisdom, and charm of her work.
While many recent documentaries about clothes manufacturing in China have focused on sweatshops and underpaid workers, Jia Zhang-ke’ s enigmatic and multilayered film offers a complex reflection on the clothing industry and how people of various classes relate to clothes in general. There is no narration (though questions are occasionally asked from offscreen) or exposition, merely an artfully arranged series of interviews and graceful tracking shots whose comparisons, contrasts, and implications are left to realms of ambiguity. Beginning with a sweatshop, Jia then cuts to chic designer Ma Ke and her limited edition Exception label that is closer to performance art than daily wear; she imagines the aesthetics of clothes that have been buried in the Earth, and philosophizes about their connections to materials and time. Jia records her clothes (showcased on heavily made-up models resembling zombies) at a Paris fashion show–an elite brand for an elite (and foreign) audience. Later, Jia takes the viewer to a mining town and interviews workers and their families, whose clothes often have been buried and unearthed: for them, aesthetic ideas fade in light of utilitarian values. Like Jia’s previous documentary on an artistic persona, Dong, it’s tempting to read his juxtapositions as critique, but I’m not so sure that’s what he has in mind. Instead, he seems interested in supplying viewers with ideas and contrasts and entrusting them with the task of interpretation and judgment. It’s a free flowing, organic investigation of the form and function of clothes in China today, and a work of tantalizing, lingering complexity.
I haven’t had an opportunity to research the exact titular meaning of Brillante Mendoza’s latest film, but I suspect it has something to do not only with the film’s whip pans and frantic camerawork that zigzags through congested Filipino streets and up and down assorted stairways, but also to the role reversals seen throughout–people transforming from victimizers to victims in the blink of an eye–as well as the bewildering mishmash of violence, poverty, and religious tradition that defines the lives of its characters. Like a fast-paced and more furious Cavite (which previously would have been hard to imagine), Mendoza’s breathless account of desperate lives in the mean streets of Manila is a pummeling and visceral experience intensified by his decision to film most of the movie with a standard lens in the middle of the action–never is the spectator allowed to step outside the mayhem and evaluate the drama from a distance. It’s a highly impressive technical exercise, yet at heart offers a penetrating glimpse into lives lived on instinct, predation, and reaction alone, whose complicated loyalties and person to person networks teem beneath empty political posturing and massive outpourings of religious sentiment. One of the most striking qualities of the film is the way it manipulates audience sympathies, switching back and forth continuously between and within scenes: a young woman and her boyfriend attempt to steal a DVD player from a street vendor and are caught; the woman drops to her knees in shame and fear as the store owner looms over her and threatens to call the police; after letting her go, still wiping her tears, she casually slips another player into her purse; later, she cannot resell it and once again seems a heartbreaking character on the losing side of fate.
Heinz Emigholz’s documentary has been generating praise on the festival circuit (I first heard about it via Robert Koehler’s BAFICI blog here), but it’s a special delight for Angelenos like myself. Composed of slightly canted, static shots (creating a playful “movement” in their juxtaposition) depicting scores of houses designed by R.M. Schindler in the Los Angeles vicinity, the film becomes a meditation on an artistic persona permeating buildings all around the city, aesthetically joining disparate classes, locations, times and functions. The last great documentary on the City of Angels may have been Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), directed by Thom Andersen, who actually appears briefly in Emigholz’s film sitting in his Schindler home; one of Andersen’s references, Gebhard and Winter’s An Architectural Guidebook to Los Angeles, describes Schindler as an early Modernist, an admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright and a proponent of the International Style, who partnered with Richard Neutra, and “was the most imaginative of the two,” but “Neutra got the publicity and the rich clients that Schindler rarely acquired.” Seeing the Schindler houses today in various conditions–from crumbling apartments to ultrarich displays–only emphasizes the vagaries of tastes over time.
The most evocative aspect of the film, however, is its ambient soundtrack, which highlights the role of sound in defining place, something no picture book or slide show can offer. Though the houses are filmed largely in isolation, the viewer can infer many facts about their locations from the nature of the offscreen sounds. At first, I assumed sound was locked with picture, but I noticed some sounds carrying over from shot to shot, like dogs barking or planes flying overhead. After the screening, Emigholz confirmed that the sound for each house was recorded separately but was individually remixed to create a more fluid listening experience. Not many films will change our perceptions of our hometowns, but this one is already altering the way I see and hear this sprawling metropolis.
Adoor Gopalakrishnan is a highly lauded Indian filmmaker, but he only has a single DVD available in the US; on the basis of his newest film, I consider that a loss for North American film culture. (The managing director of an arthouse DVD label in the UK recently told me he regarded Gopalakrishnan as the “most important filmmaker working in India after Ray.”) Like Rossellini’s India, this feature is divided into several short vignettes, all four of them revolving around social and emotional issues facing women (iconically titled “The Prostitute,” “The Virgin,” “The Housewife,” and “The Spinster”). Shot in deep, lush colors, and filmed almost entirely in medium shots and close-ups (and practically no establishing shots) that subtly emphasize the social claustrophobia each woman faces, the film has a tableaux feel with each episode adopting a decidedly parable-like structure that ends on a note of unresolved action but inner conviction. Music is used sparingly–sometimes beginning and ending mid-scene–for tonal emphasis rather than dramatic exposition, and Gopalakrishnan incorporates a number of motifs–water, food, silence–to unify the chapters. In what I believe is the film’s sole use of a zoom lens, a woman nobly states, “You have to hold yourself as a pillar holds a house,” which could easily serve as the empowering and compassionate theme of this elegant and memorable film.
If you haven’t heard, Carlos Reygadas’ latest film opens with what will almost certainly be the most audacious and beautiful opening shot you’ll see all year: a limitless Milky Way that rotates and shifts behind silhouetted trees and slowly fades from sight at the burning crack of dawn (and the haunting cries of cattle), at once evoking the realism, the hidden world, and the mysterious Cosmos that will pervade the rest of the film. And it doesn’t let up, offering one widescreen vista after another reaching into infinity with an almost electrifying Bazinian physical clarity as it tells its quiet story of a marital affair within a Mennonite community in Mexico.
Even more impressively, its visual clarity is only matched by the emotional clarity of its characters, all of whom come across as struggling, intelligent adults who hold no secrets; there are no heroes or villains. Not only does Reygadas capture astonishing landscapes, but he captures fleeting, magical acts of nature–like the first drops of rain from a looming storm roiling on the horizon–to a degree that could make the viewer defenseless to the miracle he finally stages for the camera. (I doubt this film will translate to DVD no matter how good the transfer–it’s hard to imagine a stronger defense for the transcendent power of 35mm.)
I was fairly enraptured by the film until its closing act, when Reygadas’ tribute to Dreyer’s Ordet becomes so overpowering that comparisons between the two films are unavoidable; given that Ordet may be my favorite film of all time, that comparison probably put Silent Light at an unfair disadvantage: I found the film’s act of cosmic intervention much less thematically grounded in its narrative, and less logically unavoidable and dramatically astounding than the one that climaxes Dreyer’s film. Reygadas’ treatment of his characters’ emotions is always pitch-perfect, but the implications of his miracle seem more random and less challenging regardless of one’s predisposition to mysticism (or even magic realism). In a surprising way, certain touches seem academic, like the film’s use of a clock (lifted wholesale from Ordet) or its emphasis on doors, vis a vis Robert Bresson’s belief that doors were portals to Mystery. It might very well be a perfect film on its own accord, but for me its implications and staying power fall considerably short of Dreyer’s masterwork.
Fengming: A Chinese Memoir
Much like Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary (2002) offered a highly engrossing portrait of an elderly woman’s personal experience through the modest means of a stationary video camera set in her home, Wang Bing’s minimalist recording of the oral history of a life lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution is immediate, illuminating, and deeply compelling. Wang intensifies the intimacy by leaving the camera on while He Fenming–a Revolutionary journalist who sacrificed her early life plans for the Party but soon found herself and her husband the target of its ire–stops the interview to go to the bathroom, answer the phone, brighten the room, etc., effectively dissolving the fourth wall between storyteller and spectator. Wang also captures Fengming in oblique angles around her home before and after her nearly three-hour interview, sidling up to his subject as if drawing her out from the everyday decor, one story out of millions. But no amount of “packaging” is necessary–Fengming’s resilience, humor, sadness, and descriptive powers are in ample evidence from the start, and the film is an emotionally immersive document on par with the most confessional Holocaust accounts or similar recordings of personal histories caught up in major world events. Not to be missed.
Chronicle of a Summer
As someone with a special interest in documentaries, I found it thrilling to finally be able to see Jean Rouch’s highly influential 1961 account of Parisian life where the question “Are you happy?” is posed to random passers-by. Already experimenting with the documentary form with a series of African films that mixed fact and fiction, Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin teamed up with Canadian cinematographer Michel Brault to record street interviews while gradually focusing on certain individuals: a factory worker, a Holocaust survivor, and an African and Italian immigrant. What makes the film especially remarkable isn’t just its famed handheld cinÈma vÈritÈ technique based on lightweight technology, but the modernist way Rouch and Morin fold the film back in on itself, appearing on camera and showcasing their creative methods (bordering on psychodrama)–even screening the film for its subjects and recording their reactions to it. The film ends with Rouch and Morin debating its implications, conclusions and artistic merits.
The film is fascinating in its self-examination, prompting numerous questions regarding reality and its representation on film that was to have an enormous impact on the French New Wave, including Left Bank essayists like Agnes Varda and Chris Marker, whose film Le Joli Mai (1963) is in some ways his own response to Rouch and Morin’s seminal work. Despite the years, it has aged very well, and the playful, inquisitive energy behind its observations and observations of its observations is positively infectious.
Ne touchez pas la hache (The Duchess of Langeais)
With a rare print of Jacques Rivette’s magisterial Out 1 (1971) finally making the global rounds this year, we’re reminded of the filmmaker’s radical experimentation with form and, ironically, may subsequently be badly poised to appreciate his latest venture–an extremely faithful adaptation of HonorÈ de Balzac’s second novella in his History of the Thirteeen (repeatedly referenced in Out 1). Expectations aside, the film is a perfectly timed and highly nuanced evocation of Balzac’s romantic tragedy cum secret society thriller rumination on the sexes; why it has received negative reviews elsewhere is beyond me. The casting is perfect, from Depardieu’s brooding physical presence to Jeanne Balibar’s catlike finesse (though pushing 40, she’s much older than Balzac envisioned); virtually every scene is included but nothing feels rushed. (Rivette artfully breaks down an account of an African adventure into three different scenes, thus generating a kind of low-level suspense that’s enjoyably reflective of the early flirtations between the two major characters.) The adaptation itself virtually transcribes Balzac’s prose paragraph by paragraph, taking great care to accentuate the author’s attention to physical detail, 19th century social mores, and shifting emotional registers. All the dialogue (including the sometimes ironic intertitles) has been culled from the novella, with the exception of a few scenes merely described in the book; for these, Rivette and his longtime co-screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer imagine fitting dialogue inspired by the author’s prose. One can take exception to Balzac’s narrative (as does Penguin Classics’ own English translator, Herbert J. Hunt), but Rivette’s careful adaptation is as sensitive and true to the source material as one could imagine. It may not showcase the experimental Rivette we all know and love, but that merely accentuates the diversity of his talent.