Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Toronto Diary: Day Three

For the last few years, I've been reading about the Berlin School of filmmakers that have been shaking up the moribund German cinema--or at the very least, providing a much needed alternative to dreary prestige films like Downfall (2005) and The Lives of Others (2006). However, on the basis of the small number of these films to cross the Atlantic--Maren Ade's good but minor The Forest for the Trees (2003); Christian Petzold's dreadful Yella (2007)--I can only assume there are better movies I'm not seeing. The other possibility, that this is really the best that contemporary German cinema has to offer, is simply too depressing to entertain.

A case in point: Petzold's Jerichow (2008) wowed reviewers at Venice and Toronto last fall, but it strikes me as a painfully unnecessary retread of James M. Cain's "The Postman Always Rings Twice." As the film opens, Thomas (Benno Fürmann), a former soldier, needs money to renovate his mother's house. By chance, he meets Ali (Hilmi Sözer), a businessman who's lost his license for drinking and driving, and needs a chauffeur. Ali has a wife, Laura (Nina Hoss), and it doesn't take a film historian to guess what happens next. The film has a twist ending, but that doesn't make the preceding ninety minutes or so any less predictable or dull.

Petzold's spare style doesn't help. There are only three major characters, and the film returns again and again to the same locations. Petzold seldom moves his camera, and the score by Stefan Will infrequently intrudes upon the spartan soundtrack (if I'm not mistaken, it's the same piece played over and over). Perhaps Petzold's reason for choosing such a familiar story is that viewers are less likely to be distracted from noticing a number of formal rhymes (as when he he sets two different scenes at the same beach for the sake of parallelism) because they're too involved in the plot.

In Cinema Scope, Michael Sicinski offered a defense for the film, arguing that the rote-ness of Thomas and Laura's affair is part of some Sirko-Fassbinderian distancing strategy designed to tweak viewers for their racist assumptions about the story. The problem with this rationale, for me at least, is that it exists above the level of narrative and style on which the film is actually experienced. Then again, the idea of Petzold expecting any one to be interested in this story is probably just as far-fetched.

Given that I know practically nothing about Inuit people and culture, any film that tackles Inuit subjects is going to be something I want to see. So it pains me to report that Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Madeline Ivalu's Le Jour avant le lendemain (2008) is an exhausting, exasperatingly slow movie in which, for long stretches, literally nothing is happening. Set just after the arrival of the white man, it's about a grandmother, Ninioq (Madeline Ivalu), and her grandson, Maniq (Paul-Dylan Ivalu), who go to an island alone to dry the fish caught by their tribe during the summer. But when they return a few months later, they find that every one's died of small pox. There is the potential here for a great film, but the story doesn't go anywhere.

The characters love to talk. Before Ninioq and Maniq set out for the island, there is a scene where an old man, Kukik (Tumasie Sivuarapik), shows off the knife that was given to him by white men, using it to cut off pieces of fish. An old woman in the tribe, Kuutujuk (Mary Qulitalik), remarks that if she were his wife, Kukik could fatten her up real quick with a knife like that. Later, Kukik tells a bawdy story about white men getting drunk and wanting to sleep with Inuit women in exchange for needles. And on their journey, Maniq is forever asking his grandmother to tell him a story. Where the film gets into trouble is when the characters stop talking. At one point, Ninioq and Maniq's tent blows down and they have to spend the night in a cave. There is a long, pointless scene in which Ninioq brushes her hair and rearranges objects by the fire. Then she puts out the fire, very slowly and methodically with a metal spoon, and goes to bed. It's almost as if, in response to the under-representation of Inuit people in the mainstream media, the film's extremely slow pacing is some kind of strategy to keep Inuit actors on screen as long as humanly possible.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Toronto Diary: Day Two

Tulpan (2008), Sergei Dvortsevoy's film about nomadic sheep herders in the deserts of Kazakhstan, contains some of the most sublime images ever captured on film--most memorably, the birth of a sheep filmed in a single, unbroken take. It's a messy, ugly affair with the film's hero, Asa (Askhat Kuchinchirekov), violently yanking the baby from its mother's womb and giving it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Working in a virtuoso long take style with a handheld camera, Dvortsevoy contrasts the cosy, colourfully decorated huts where the characters live with the vast, barren landscape that surrounds them. And the film has a dense ambient soundtrack of animal noises, harsh winds that never let up, and the singing of Asa's young niece, who isn't allowed to sing but does so anyway. (The film makes its Jane Campion points about how women's voices are silenced in patriarchal societies without bludgeoning the viewer too much.) Like Zacharias Kunuk's Atanarjuat (2001), the film immerses the viewer in a way of life completely cut off from the modern world.

In the opening sequence, Asa and his brother-in-law, Ondas (Ondasyn Besikbasov), pay a visit to the parents of a young woman named Tulpan, whom Asa has never seen, to ask them for their daughter's hand in marriage. Tulpan watches the proposal from behind a curtain, and on the way home, Ondas reveals that she turned down the proposal because Asa's ears are too big. There are no other unmarried women in the region, and without a wife, Boss Comrade (Zhappas Zhailanbeaev), won't give Asa his own flock of sheep. Meanwhile, the sheep in Ondas' flock are all giving birth to dead children. Curiously, however, this situation never seems very dire. The film is beautiful to look at and to listen to, but I was never that involved in its story.

Having served time as a teacher myself, Laurent Cantet's Entre les murs (2008) seems as close to home for me as Tulpan seems remote. Of course, nothing in my experience was as dramatic as what happens in the film, even before the plot kicks into high gear. At first, we merely seem to be eavesdropping on a series of lessons. François (François Bégaudeau) is a French teacher in the Paris suburbs whose students are mainly from immigrant families and are learning French as their second language. The class is extremely difficult to control, and the film alternates between the lessons and teachers' meetings, where François and his co-workers discuss what to do about the more disruptive students. It usually comes down to a disagreement between François, who wants to do what will help the students, and another male teacher who's more of a disciplinarian. And the movie presents both points of view so well that it's hard to side with either one. The lessons and the teachers' meetings are seen as separate spheres, and it's only when one intrudes upon the other that it leads to crisis.

This is Cantet's fourth feature after Resources humaines (1999), L'Emploi du temps (2001) and Vers le sud (2005). I've seen all but the first, and what's become clear is that his style is entirely functional, and he's totally at the mercy of the scripts he chooses to work with. In Entre les murs, the film's pseudo-documentary aesthetic, which favors handheld medium shots and close-ups with a shallow depth of field (a break from Cantet's two previous films), is completely self-effacing, turning the camera into an invisible observer of reality. But what Cantet's camera records here is fascinating. Working with Bégaudeau's autobiographical book (which I haven't read) and a cast of non-professional actors, many of them playing versions of themselves (only one of the teenage actors doesn't use his own name), the film has a freshness that was missing from Vers le sud. The film would make a swell double bill with Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky (also 2008), another terrific movie about teaching in a multi-cultural city, but where Leigh's film is about the teacher, Cantet's is really about the students.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Toronto Diary: Day One

The nice thing about spending a few days in Toronto is that I can go to movies all day and not feel guilty about it. I went to movies in Geneva, Paris and London--notably James Gray's Two Lovers (2008), Billy Wilder's Avanti! (1972), Atom Egoyan's Adoration (2008) again, and Jean-Luc Godard's Le Mépris (1963)--but always after a solid day of sightseeing. What am I missing when I go to the movies in Toronto? Cold weather and ugly architecture?

The first movie I saw was Matteo Garrone's Gomorra (2008), about organized crime in contemporary Naples. The film is audacious in the way it cuts between five different storylines with no immediate connection. The characters include a young boy of about thirteen who delivers groceries, a pair of would-be gangsters, a dressmaker, a respectable-looking middle-aged man who pays out money to different people, and a sleazy landfill owner. There's a hidden connection between two of the characters, which the film reveals mid-way through, but that notwithstanding, this is not one of those movies like Crash (2005) or Babel (2006), where the film tries to show how We Are All Connected through chance encounters and buried connections. Rather, what binds the characters is that their actions are regulated and determined by an all-pervasive mob corruption--one that doesn't seem to have a center but is everywhere.

Even at 137 minutes, the film bites off more than it can chew. (It ends with as much text as Il Divo [2008] begins with.) Without a word of exposition, the film throws us into the middle of everything and leaves us to find our bearings. It's never explained in so many words why one of the characters goes around giving out money to different people, but sooner or later you figure it out. On the other hand, I'm still not entirely clear on what the mob has to do with haute couture, although I guess they're producing knock-offs of designer dresses. Not all of the characters are well developed. The landfill owner's assistant bears mute witness to his boss' sleaziness for most of the picture, his discomfort clear almost from the outset, before suddenly taking a moral stand in the last scene in which he appears. Of course, it goes without saying that I prefer a film that tries too much to one that attempts too little.

Filmed in 'Scope by Marco Onorato, the movie is never less than exquisite to look at, despite the gritty realism of the locations and performances. The film moves between concrete slums and wide open country, and Onorato's lighting schemes are similarly varied, ranging from diffuse daylight coming in through windows, hitting the characters side-on, to hard institutional lighting from above, as when some of the characters go to a morgue. There's one especially beautiful scene with the would-be gangsters walking through a forest with the branches and leaves casting shadows on them. The soundtrack is also noteworthy, alternating between interiors with little ambient audio, and exteriors with a richly populated soundtrack of off-screen shouting and other sounds.

I suspect a lot of people will want to see the film for the same reason that Fernando Merielles' City of God (2002) was so popular in North America, despite it being in Portuguese with English subtitles: because it's about gangsters. Often young boys go to movies like this and come away thinking that the characters are cool, regardless of the filmmakers' intentions. To his credit, Garrone is keenly aware of this: An early scene shows the two would-be gangsters emulating Tony Montana from Scarface (1983). And this film has no equivalent for the Tommy DeVito character from Goodfellas (1990), the psychopath who kills people because he likes it. Incidentally, it's worth noting that while real mobsters were flattered by the depictions of organized crime in The Godfather (1972) and other Hollywood films, the non-fiction novel Gomorra is based on did such a good job of exposing the Camorra gang's activities in Naples that its author, Roberto Saviano, is now under permanent police protection. Of course, the films are the same no matter how people interpret them, but obviously there's a difference between studio filmmakers, like Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese, who are expected to make movies that will appeal to teenage boys, and an independent like Garrone, who's under no such obligation.

Similarly, I suspect some people won't want to see Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's Sugar (2008) because it's about baseball, but it's also about a lot more than that. The film opens in the Dominican Republic where Miguel "Sugar" Santos (Algenis Perez Soto) is competing for a spot at spring training with the Kansas City Royals. The film follows him to Kansas and then to Iowa, where he's selected to be the starting pitcher for the minor league team. The film shows how competitive baseball is at this level with so many excellent players vying for only a handful of positions; if a player starts performing poorly, he's unceremoniously dropped from the team and sent home. As one character puts it, "Life gives you lots of opportunities. Baseball just gives you one." At this point, I thought I knew where the story was headed, but then it takes an unexpected turn, and the film's real subject--the opportunities for immigrants in America--comes to into focus.

This is only Boden and Fleck's second feature after Half Nelson (2006), and again they show themselves to be nuanced writers (there are no villains in this story) with a talent for coaxing fine performances from all their actors. However, their stylistic choices are often heavy-handed. One favorite device is a focus pull from one character in the background, framed in medium close-up, to another positioned closer to the camera, or vice-versa. (Interestingly, this device feels more naturalistic when it's tied to a pan, as in a church youth group meeting that Sugar attends in Iowa.) When Sugar starts doping, the film suddenly introduces anti-naturalistic sound cues--the dialogue is way down low, as if Sugar is listening from underwater, while the stadium lights behind him emit a loud buzzing noise--as well as oddly framed close-ups that lop off part of Sugar's face, a faster shutter speed, a shallower depth of field, and sudden, jerky pans and tilts. Like Gomorra, the film strives for realism, but where Garrone's pseudo-documentary style isn't tied to any one character's subjectivity (and accordingly, there are vastly fewer close-ups), Boden and Fleck draw from a larger range of stylistic options to make us identify with the film's protagonist.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Tony Manero

Tony Manero (2008) is an extraordinary film by Pablo Larrain, set in Santiago during the Pinochet era, about a fifty-two year old man from the slums who's obsessed with the John Travolta character from Saturday Night Fever (1977). In the opening sequence, Raúl Peralta (Alfonso Castro, who co-wrote the screenplay with Larrain and Matteo Iribarren), arrives at a TV studio where he's to be a contestant in a Tony Manero lookalike dance-off, but because of a misunderstanding, he comes a week early on Chuck Norris day. Was impersonating American movie stars a real phenomenon in Chile in the 1970s? It seems too strange to make up.

In a flashback, we see Raúl signing up for the show. The producer asks him what he does for a living. "This." Raúl, who doesn't have a job and lives in a brothel, is rehearsing a musical revue based on numbers from the movie, starring himself, Cony (Ampero Noguera), a prostitute, her grown daughter, Pauli (Paola Lattus), and a boy who works in the brothel, Goyo (Héctor Morales). One night, Goyo and Pauli come to Raúl's room to show him some moves they've been working on, but Raúl is single-minded: "That's not in the film." The film doesn't tell us anything about Raúl's life before Saturday Night Fever, and it's impossible to say what he'll do after the final shot. His whole identity revolves around Tony Manero, and the film ends at the moment when that identity is taken away from him.

Raúl is loved by Cony with a possessiveness matching the Gene Tierney character in Leave Her to Heaven (1945). Early in the film, she tries to convince Raúl that they could do the show on their own, without Pauli and Goyo. One night, Pauli gets caught in a rainstorm, and the brothel's madam, Wilma (Elsa Poblete), takes off her wet clothes in full view of Raúl. When Cony sees this, she becomes jealous and hits Pauli. Raúl, however, is indifferent to Cony's love. As Cony puts it, the only thing that makes him hard is the glass floor he's building for the show. And unbeknownst to her, Wilma is pregnant with Raúl's child. Why are these women drawn to Raúl? The film doesn't give a definitive answer, but obviously it has something to do with Tony Manero.

The film offers a vivid, if peculiar, glimpse into life in Chile under Pinochet. Goyo is a communist who distributes leaflets criticizing the regime, and Cony disapproves of Pauli getting involved with him. In an early scene, Raúl helps an old woman home after she's beaten by a gang on the street. All she can offer him as a token of her thanks is a can of year-old expired cat food. The only thing she owns of any value is a colour TV, which is conspicuous enough that she has to explain to Raúl that she only got it because she's a soldier's widow. Without warning, Raúl suddenly attacks the woman and steals her TV. One subtext of the film is that the regime broke down collective solidarity, turning people against each other.

The film has a gritty, documentary look. Most of the film is shot handheld, and Larrain keeps his camera close to Raúl and his depth of field shallow. The film was shot on extremely light sensitive film stock, resulting in grainy images with desaturated colours. The film doesn't portray subjective states, like dreams, and there's no non-diegetic music. (However, the characters often listen to records and tapes.) The style of the film is a counterpoint to Raúl's Hollywood-inspired fantasies--although it's worth remembering that Saturday Night Fever is itself very gritty.

Why does Raúl identify with Tony Manero? Perhaps the film is dropping a clue when one of the characters observes that, unlike Raúl, Tony Manero will never get old. Hollywood movies routinely offer viewers the opportunity to identify with people stronger, more beautiful, more perfect than themselves. So no one wonder so many people dress up as their favorite characters (think of the Star Wars [1977] cult or the Rocky Horror [1975] cult). Each item of clothing, each prop becomes a fetish object, whether it's Tony Manero's white suit, Luke Skywalker's light saber or Dr. Frank N. Furter's black lingerie, bringing the person who wears/holds it one step closer to perfectamundo--to quote the mother in Myla Goldberg's "Bee Season." Tony Manero is a film about what it means to practice what Dr. Frank N. Furter preaches: Don't dream it. Be it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Two Films by Andy Warhol

If you've ever heard anything at all about the films of Andy Warhol, you've probably heard that they're invariably boring--that his six-hour film of somebody sleeping, Sleep (1963), and his eight-four-hour film of the Empire State Building, Empire (1964), are ideas to be discussed more than they are movies to be seen. This reputation is not unfounded, but as Warhol produced a vast number of films in his factory days, and they're all extremely hard to come by, I was happy to have the opportunity on Friday to see two of them at the Cinémathèque Français, so I could experience them for myself.

The films were screened together as a single program, titled "Andy Warhol, Portraits," which is a good way of describing them. The first and shorter of the two, Blowjob (1963)--one of Warhol's best known films--consists entirely of a close-up of a young man who may or may not be getting a blowjob. The second, Eating Too Fast (1966), which is longer and not as well known, features a different young man staring blankly into the camera, but here Warhol employs pans and zooms to reveal more of his environment. Of the two, I prefer Blowjob because it's more mysterious, although it's not without boring parts, while Eating Too Much starts out mysteriously but eventually becomes merely tedious.

In Blowjob, the unresolved ambiguity of whether or not the subject is receiving a blowjob turns each piece of information into a potential clue. Behind the man is a brick wall, and the light is coming from directly above him, as if from a streetlight. However, the way he keeps leaning his head back suggests that he's sitting in a chair, making it unlikely he's on the street. (Besides, if he were getting a blowjob on the street, he'd probably want to find the darkest spot available to avoid being seen, rather than standing directly under a streetlight.) The way his head jerks around, it sometimes looks as though Warhol shot the film--or at least parts of it--in reverse motion, though I can't be sure. Then there's the possibility that the subject is faking it for the camera, which prompts the viewer to scrutinize his every facial twitch for signs of acting. Unfortunately, because of the way the scene's lit, each time the subject leans forward (which is often), his face becomes enveloped in shadows, which I found frustrating.

No fewer than five times during the movie, the screen go completely white as the camera runs out of film. A 400-foot roll of 16mm film stock is roughly equivalent to three minutes of footage. By my estimation, this makes the film about eighteen minutes long. Had the subject taken longer to finish, the film could've been even longer, but we wouldn't have any more information about him.

Warhol shot Eating Too Fast with sync sound, which gives us a few more clues to work with. The film opens with a close-up of the subject staring directly into the camera. Off-screen, we can faintly hear traffic and barking dogs in the distance. Since the light is hitting the subject side-on, neatly dividing his face into light and dark halves, we might infer that the only light source is an open window just off-screen, rather than any artificial light source (as is almost certainly the case in Blowjob). After a minute or so, we can hear a second person in the room, coughing and sipping a drink. Up to this point, Warhol is dropping lots of clues but giving no definitive answers.

The young man's vacant expression and occasional coughing suggest that he might be stoned. But once when he picks up the phone, he suddenly becomes more animated, which rules out this hypothesis. We don't hear the person on the other end of the line, although we gather from what the subject says that it's a friend of his, Bob, who just called to see how the subject is doing. During the conversation, there's an abrupt zoom out and pan down to reveal another person in the room. After the subject hangs up, he goes back to staring blankly at the camera for the remainder of the film, which is a while. (Working with a larger film magazine, Warhol doesn't have to change the reels, although there's a visible cut mid-way through the film.) The zooms and pans continue after the phone call ends, but since we don't learn any new information, they seem entirely pointless, and Warhol's clumsy technique in executing them is even more distracting.

The problem with both films is that they're not so much movies as they are paintings in time: Warhol trained his camera on a static situation, and held the shot for an arbitrary period of time. (The final reel of Blowjob, in which the subject lights a cigarette after climaxing, adds nothing, and one could easily lop it off and project the piece as a video loop in a gallery.) At the screening I went to, there were numerous walk-outs. I don't think the people who went to the show were expecting a traditional narrative or weren't sophisticated enough to appreciate the films. Rather, Warhol is incapable of sustaining a viewer's interest from beginning to end. Then again, I don't think he cared much about the audience either way.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Rachel Getting Married

There are some very good scenes in Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married (2008)--which is playing in Paris under the title Rachel se marie--but you have to wait for them. The film, which takes place at a wedding, periodically comes to a halt for lots of long, heartfelt speeches in which different family members say how happy they are, and how great it is that everyone's here together. Having been to real weddings where people gave boring speeches like those in the film, I can't say I was eager to see that experience represented on film.

Thankfully, however, at least some of the family members are miserable. As the film opens, Kym (Anne Hathaway), has just been released from rehab after killing somebody with her car. Her older sister, Rachel (Rosemary DeWitt), who's about to get married to a perfectly boring young man named Sidney--as in Poitier?--(Tunde Adebimpe), deeply resents Kym for the way her problems are always stealing the spotlight. At one point, Rachel observes that their father, Paul (Bill Irwin), who watches Kym like a hawk, only becomes engaged in a conversation when Kym's name gets brought up. (Sidney's biggest concern, on the other hand, is maximizing the number of plates he can put in the dishwasher at one time.) The movie has the basic structure of an old fashioned family melodrama, like both versions of Yasujiro Ozu's Floating Weeds (1934/59), in which an absent family member returns after a sustained period away, and old secrets and wounds come to the surface.

The film has been celebrated by liberal reviewers because the fact that Sidney is black and Rachel is white doesn't so much as raise an eyebrow. But if we are supposed to be living in this "post-racial" utopia, then how come the film is at pains to make Sidney's family as boring as possible? Couldn't they be messed up too, and have a daughter who's a former model and recovering drug addict, just the same as any white family? Also, it's a little conspicuous that the bridesmaids are all wearing saris, even though none of the characters are Hindu and it's a Christian ceremony, as if wearing the clothes somehow made the event more inclusive.

Shot on video by Declan Quinn, it's the kind of cruddy looking movie that only a truly talented cinematographer could make. When Rachel disappears into a dark kitchen, a lesser DP would contrive some way of shining a light in her face, but Quinn, having painted himself into a corner of pointless naturalism, refuses to back down. When Demme shows us the home movie being shot by Sidney's younger brother (a military hero, and therefore doubly boring), the change in image quality is subtle rather than dramatic.

The plot and style of the film both resemble Noah Baumbach's Margot at the Wedding (2007), which was also about the love-hate relationship between adult sisters. That film was photographed by Harris Savides, who also achieved a naturalistic look by shooting in low lighting conditions. And both films favor handheld medium shots and close-ups--all the better for serving up the emotions raw and throwing viewers into the thick of it. But in Baumbach's film, all the characters have interesting flaws. For instance, the groom (Jack Black, taking his Orange County [2002] loser persona to the absolute max) is a failed musician with a "funny" mustache who's eventually revealed to be a pedophile. And Savides, working on 35mm, is able to have a whole range of tones, from over-exposed to totally black with a single light source (say, the light shining in through an attic window), in contrast with Quinn's images, which are flat and ugly. But because the picture Baumbach paints is much less flattering, reviews were mixed, while the critics are going bananas for Demme's rose-tinted view of racial harmony.

Incidentally, the film I regard as Demme's best work, The Agronomist (2003), is a sobering--if even cruddier-looking--documentary about the Haitian radio personality, Jean Dominique, whose political out-spokeness eventually got him killed. A labor of love that took Demme more than a decade to complete, it's virtually a rebuke of all his other films, this one included. But when it comes to what makes reviewers pur and wins awards (a hard look at Haiti's recent history or a self-congratulatory liberal fantasy), naïvety is clearly a better career move.