By Patrick Z. McGavin
With some 278 features shown at this year’s edition, Toronto is not just a film festival; it’s a virtual orgy of cinema. No matter how hard one tries, the festival proves logistically impossible to fully assimilate. Even if you include the films screened beforehand, primarily at Cannes and Sundance, I saw only a fraction of the program. According to figures the festival released, nearly half a million people attended the festival.
To their credit the festival organizers have a method to the madness. Toronto has always had a fairly egalitarian, open-ended approach to its programming. It has proven very adroit at yoking together a mélange of high echelon Hollywood, international masters, documentaries, works by emerging and unknown filmmakers and probably most impressively, an experimental offshoot with its Wavelengths program.
At the same time it is possible to make all manner of connections and dovetailing themes and preoccupations. Two of the most talked about works, for instance, were the science fiction-inflected Gravity and Under the Skin.
Gravity is the new film, his first in seven years, by the superb Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón. The story of two astronauts (superbly played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock) unmoored in deep space, the movie is infused with a majestic and soulful purity. The extreme digital manipulation of the image is, of course, the dominant technological story of the last four decades of cinema. The great paradox is as the technology has become more seamless and expressive, the directors have become enthralled a little too much, losing a great deal of personality in the process.
Gravity is a bravura technical work, made explicit in the stunning opening fourteen minute shot as Cuarón’s gliding and highly mobile camerawork draws on the vast and infinite space that evokes a daunting and magnificent physical world. Cuarón’s great skill here is to personalize the material (he wrote the script with his son, Jonás Cuarón). He intuitively contrasts the immaculate and stunning imagery against the particulars of the human quest, in this case, the mission involving the jocular, veteran pilot (Clooney) and the gifted scientist and doctor (Bullock) tasked with her first mission.
The poetry and beauty of the opening is soon disrupted by a frightening blowback, a firestorm of debris from a downed Russian satellite, leaves the two astronauts the only survivors of their mission. With their own station damaged beyond repair, the two must improvise to secure their own safety. The movie, which does not have a wasted moment in its fleet and sharp 93-minute running time, is the only aesthetic justification of 3-D I know of late.
Cuarón is savvy and smart enough to meditate on the classics of the form (2001, Solaris), but the marvel, complexity and impudent wit that are his signature are subtly woven into the movie’s rhythms. It’s a sly and subversive comedy of marriage as the extreme pressure and intensity of incident draws out a marvelous and lyrical exchange between the two principals, Clooney’s natural wit masking his extreme competence and Bullock, the serious one haunted by a personal tragedy, discovering untapped powers of thinking and problem resolution.
To say anything more risks overstatement. Just see it, again and again.
Under the Skin is just the third feature by the exceptionally gifted London-born Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast), and his first feature in the nine years since his fascinating though rather problematic Birth. If Gravity is a work of a lucid and emphatic wonder, this movie is composed is wholly different register of exacting strangeness.
The movie generated a highly polarizing response, from rapture to walkouts and it is easy to understand both points. As storytelling, the movie seems an acute failure, deprived of clarity, emotional insight or psychological intricacy. It’s frequently hypnotic though inchoate and the parts rarely cohere.
No less than Gravity, the movie testifies to the power and alluring wonder of image and sound. The movie has some truly knockout images, a motorcycle cutting like a blade through the nocturnal landscapes, the coastal cliffs of the Highlands or most frightening, the transmogrification of those avid, ready men seduced by the mysterious central character.
Perhaps most interestingly, Under the Skin is a meditation on the form and erotic wonder of Scarlett Johansson. She plays the alien seductress who falls to Earth and takes the shape of a carnal loner who navigates the streets of Glasgow in a white van, seducing a series of men, before leading them to a rather unsavory fate, one utterly transfixing to watch, the men led into a inky-black pool of slit as the alien being walks, as if suspended, on air.
The movie is adapted, very loosely, from Michael Faber’s novel, by the director and his writing partner Walter Campbell. Johansson, who’s so astoundingly beautiful, has never really received her just due, as both an actress and very skilled comedienne. She is electric, especially in the movie’s brilliant centerpiece, an extended pas a deux between her character and a virginal, severely deformed middle-aged man she meets in the street and offers a kind of erotic sanctuary. The emotional exchange alters her being, deepening her own humanity and, conversely, exposing her to a wholly different form of vulnerability and weakness.
Johansson avails herself emotionally and sexually in a way she has never really been demanded of in the past. Under the Skin is a great many things, often contradictory, the exasperating and annihilating alternating side-by-side. Personally I could have done with less of the severely disassociation. The tradeoffs, Johansson’s performance, the score (Mica Levi) and the voluptuous, sinister visual rhyming, offer more than compensatory thrills.
Finally, it is impossible to discuss Toronto without the work that towered over much of the festival, relegating much else to the shadows. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave arrived amid a torrent of excitement after it showed as a sneak preview at Telluride the week before. It is the kind of galvanizing work that actually matches the hype.
The third feature of the English director and artist (his first two features were Hunger and Shame), the movie repudiates the trash aesthetics of Django Unchained and The Butler, accurately reducing them to vacuous minstrel acts. “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one soul by the tape of the world that looks on in amused contempt and pity,” the great social theorist and black intellectual W.E.B. DuBois wrote in his landmark, The Souls of Black Folks.
The irreconcilable is the movie’s dominant mode of expression. McQueen and the writer, the talented though erratic John Ridley, adapt the astonishing memoir of Solomon Northup, a mid-19th century black Northerner who, victimized by an elaborate ruse of white bounty hunters, was kidnapped and sold into the service of a succession of vicious Southern plantation owners. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Northup, a dandy and aesthete, a gifted violinist, subjected to the same peculiar brand of self-lacerating as Michael Fassbender endured in McQueen’s first two features.
What registers, initially, are the images, especially the frightening rendering of captivity and confinement worthy of Robert Bresson, especially the deft early sequences that contrast Northup’s freedom with his appalling new conditions. He personifies DuBois’ notion of the black “twoness,” a man who must renounce his own abilities, talents, his very worth and being, in order to survive.
Again working with his great cinematographer Sean Bobbit, McQueen locates the poetry of terror in the everyday, an overhead shot of a wagon as its tarp is uncovered, revealing the black bodies, some quite small, packed into compacted space; the churning of a steam engine boat, echoing the Middle Passages that brought the first generation of Africans to the New World; and the harshness of the Rembrandt lighting as Northup comes to the sobering realization of his loss of status, identity and existence.
The movie is bound by harshness and staggering injustice, at the systematic and brutal manner blacks are denied their worth, sexually subjugated or worst of all, violently torn from their families. (“You’ll forget your children,” is the most chilling line spoken.) Like Edward P. Jones’ great novel, The Known World, the work has a moral sophistication and depth, especially about race and class, that defies easy analysis, evident in the figure of the great Alfre Woodard, who plays a former slave and now wife of a more progressive white Southern plantation owner. She provides learned counsel and friendship to a traumatized young black woman (the astounding Lupita Nyong’o) desperate to retain her humanity.
12 Years a Slave looks both backward and forward. McQueen, like Claude Lanzmann’s great Shoah, exists to bear a particular kind of witness. Like Lanzmann’s masterpiece, it is great filmmaking shaped to a subject that stands outside our ability to ever explicate. Call it the sorrow and the pity.