Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Who? Which film? What award?!!

The people in this photograph all won awards at the Toronto International Film Festival this year and I have no clue who any of them are. Yes, the TIFF prizes have all been announced and once again I am scratching my head. It seems every year these awards go to films I didn’t see. No, not just films I didn’t see, films I barely remember reading about (and I read the program book from start to finish). I am always amazed when I look at this list, until I remember that those prize juries (except the FIPRESCI prize - voted on by the international press corps) are mostly just two or three specific indivduals. And juries are sometimes bewildering. Let’s not forget L’Enfant and Cannes.

I'm sure these people are all very worthy. But the truth is that prizes just aren't given out for enough of the right kinds of films. And also, there are prizes that should go for the lesser moments of the festival: longest introductory speech, most incoherent Q and A, stupidest scheduling, worst handling of a projection crisis, worst programmer fatigue errors in intro speeches, etc. I will get to all these later. But being more celebratory by nature, I am more inclined to think in terms of what I am left with: the lingering moments/memories, for now.

Here, then, are the twenty or so most vivid impressions. They are sometimes whole moments and sometimes fleeting experience. They occur both offscreen and on. Sometimes just colours and shapes, sometimes a single line or series of words. Here’s this year’s crop. Many have already been referred to in previous posts so look there to find out more. And in all cases, they are really just personal. But they may convey enough meaning to hook someone into seeing the film. Here goes.

1. Juliette Binoche’s transcendently sad face as Mary Magdalene, responding to an angel’s query “Woman why are you weeping” with “They have taken my lord and I do not know where they have laid him” in the opening scene of Abel Ferrara’s Mary.

2. Isabella Rossellini's story about meeting Anna Magnani as a child in the post-screening dialogue of My Dad is 100 Years Old/Rome, Open City.

3. Liza Minnelli soaring on stage and doffing a white boa to begin singing “Yes” in Liza with a Z. Witnessing her deeply felt excitement at the restoration of the film. Actually, just about anything from that afternoon.

4. Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi considering both her ending marriage and a sculpture in the brightly sunlit Musee Rodin, in one breathless long take of Nobuhiro Suwa’s Un Couple Parfait.

5. The hands dipping in the bowl of holy water as monks enter liturgy in Philip Groening’s, Into Great Silence. And the resonating rings in the water after they are gone.

6. The silent, stunning images of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and particularly a shot of its gold metal reflected in the adjacent river in Sydney Pollack’s Sketches of Frank Gehry.

7. Susan Sarandon’s face, listening to a gospel choir sing, (before joining them in a rousing version of Pieces of My Heart), while digesting the fact of her husband’s affair in John Turturro’s Romance and Cigarettes.

8. The frantic, desperate face of Didi (Seema Biswas) stuffing child-widow Chuiya (Sarala) through the window of a train into the arms of a Gandhi disciple (John Abraham) in Deepa Mehta’s Water.

9. Talking for 20 minutes in the theatre lobby with Japanese filmmaker Nobuhiro Suwa through my Japanese student about the making of his beautiful film, Un Couple Parfait.

10. Susan Sarandon’s softshoe shuffle at her husband’s memorial in Elizabethtown.

11. An American, an Israeli and a Palestinian woman (Natalie Portman, Hanna Laslo and Hiam Abbas) jiving in the front seat of an SUV to middle eastern pop music, en route to cross the
Jordanian border in Amos Gitai’s Free Zone.

12. Joyce Wieland talking about the women who witness the great art of their time, unconsciously comparing herself to Madame de Stael, seated near a Venetian canal in Don Owen’s Snow in Venice.

13. The first kissing scene in the back of the flowershop between Luce (Lena Headey) and Rachel (Piper Perabo) in Imagine Me and You.

14. Susan Sarandon at the premiere of Elizabethtown, responding to the girl glee in the audience over the arrival onstage of Orlando Bloom by shaking her head and body and screaming along with them, “it’s him! It’s him! Aaaghh!

15. The lush bright green vegetation and contrasting blue sky-coloured sea of Mauritius rolling past as the lovers chat in the back of the pickup truck in Barlen Pyamootoo’s Benares.

16. Blind and deaf Theresa Chang meeting the man who has been cooking for her by studying his sad face with her hands in Eric Khoo’s sublime Be With Me.

17. Jeanne Moreau’s Grandmother embracing her grandson in farewell for what she knows will be the last time in Francois Ozon’s Le temps qui reste. The roses she gave him in that moment, slowly fading in a glass in the man’s apartment a few scenes later.

18. Boys exuberantly jumping off an oil tanker after yellow barrels of oil they will push to shore in Mohammad Rosoulof's Iron Island.

19. Sitting in the Press/Industry library, watching Rashid Masharawi's Attente, while simultaneously watching Tsai Ming-liang’s The Wayward Cloud on one nearby tv and Patrice Chereau’s Gabrielle on another - without sound. On 10 televisions, simultaneous images of some of the year’s best cinema, running in silence. (Viewers wear headphones.)

And uncategorizable: running into my students working as volunteers - everywhere. Seeing some of them over and over, attending screenings with them and comparing notes afterwards. I always learn so much!

significant 'tweaking' and elizabethtown

For the first time this year, I caught wind of a possible Hollywood trend that eluded the red carpet and the bright lights: more and more mainstream Hollywood filmmakers are trying to make movies that avoid formula and embrace meaning --- and their efforts are being thwarted perhaps by studio executives: business folks who are not really filmmakers.

Take the case of Elizabethtown. I first saw the film in a press/industry screening at six in the evening of the first Friday. That timing is important. The first weekend meets the highest traffic of industry delegates (see notes below). It was at this screening that the Paramount publicist advised the press corps that there were going to be “changes” to the film and the release version would be different. Someone piped up "how different"? To which the publicist responded, "significantly different." Yet, at the press conference, Cameron Crowe called what needed to be done, “tweaking” and said that he was headed into nine days of it after Toronto and before the picture had to be locked. Nine days of tweaking? Hmmm....

A publicist is the last person to overstate the changes that will happen to a film. When the publicist is overstating and the director is understating - chances are strong the desire for change is coming from the studio, not the filmmaker. (A publicist works for the studio first and and most likely the studio instructed him to say this.) My guess is that Mr. Crowe will not be alone in his little editing suite and will be bartering to do as much 'tweaking' as possible, rather than the 'significant' changes others may be angling for. The movie's running time (2:15) is long for the genre.

The press screening was not smooth. Most of the industry present was not with the film - and had lots to say afterward in the lobby about what the changes should be.

A friend had a ticket for the premiere of the film at Roy Thomson Hall the following night so I went again. Here, the stars and director were in attendance and there was no sign from anyone of the changes in store. Nothing said in the half hour introductions, or afterward - we were led to believe that we were witnessing the launch of the finished product. The renowned festival audiences lived up to expectation and laughed and cheered in all the right moments.

I had already liked the film, but it gained from being seen in those second circumstances. It became clear to me that even given its essential structural messiness, the movie had an inherent charm that could easily be lost by overzealous 'restructure' or an attempt to contain its length. Indeed, Cameron Crowe was right. All that was really needed was tweaking, and a kind of surrender to its sprawling nature.

Premiering a film in Toronto can be a great way to convince studios and distributors that a film is ready. Let's see what happens. Crowe may be doing a little softshoe of his own as I write this. Here's hoping he's as beguiling as Sarandon and his movie stays mostly intact!

repeat screenings, new gleanings

It happens every year. Sometimes there is simply nothing else in the time slot. Sometimes someone offers me a ticket to a premiere. Sometimes I just love a film so much I have to see it again. But every film festival includes a number of repeat screenings. Obviously, a second screening allows a chance to find new nuance and meaning. But it also offers an unexpected opportunity to see a film with a different audience, or in a different kind of venue or context. My three repeat screenings of this year all added unexpected new appreciation. One of them, Elizabethtown, I will deal with in the next post.

The press/industry screening of Mary occurred in the middle of the first Saturday afternoon - a day that is probably the most attended by industry professionals of the whole festival. The screening was sold out. The reception was quiet throughout (a good sign generally with this group - no phones clicking on; no flashlights examining timetables). The sober intensity of the film registered fully on all gathered. The next night, I saw it again in the context of the public screening, attended by remarkably inarticulate director, Abel Ferrara and actor Matthew Modine, who had just seen the film for the first time and hadn’t had a chance to digest it. The editor, Langdon Page, was the only coherent member of the group able to express the movie’s aesthetic. The mostly evasive and hollow answers to the questions of the other two left me feeling less certain about the film - and wondering if it was more an accident of fate in the hands of its skilled editor, than a careful construction of vision and ideology. The film has met with mixed critical response and after the second screening I was beginning to understand why.

Liza with a Z could not have had a more euphoric screening than the one at the Elgin theatre that first Friday afternoon. With Ms. Minnelli and a host of others in attendance, and accompanied by my friends, it would have been impossible to live up to its significance and exuberance in any other screening. But sitting quietly with it on my own tv in the press/industry library (just one of several films I looked at there), I was surprised by how deeply it still affected me. The disappointingly unspectacular direction of Bob Fosse that my friends and I had noted post-screening, seemed more impressive in this small screen version. I was forced to remember that it was made for television - and what had not seemed to work in the big screen (Fosse’s overwide shots of the stage) actually lent a dignity in its formality when brought down to the small screen. And the out of focus projection had a shaper clarity in places so that expressions were more clearly visible.

There are films that I wish I could have seen twice. I wanted to see Romance and Cigarettes again, especially since it has had great trouble seeing the light of day and its release date keeps getting pushed back (It was only once previously screened - at Venice). I could have seen Sketches of Frank Gehry again just for its wonderful forms and shapes. And I found myself yearning for some of the serene images from Into Great Silence. But that could be just the weary body and soul, tired of navigating the noisy city streets!

Sunday, September 18, 2005

romance and the rose

Those who have seen the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink, will remember that John Turturro plays a writer who is madly typing an opus throughout that movie. The screenplay that the actor was
writing during those takes was apparently the early versions of the film he will release this year, Romance and Cigarettes. A musical set in New Jersey, it uses existing music that well-known actors lip-synch to, and/or sing overtop of. Right away, this makes it unique from most other contemporary musicals. In Moulin Rouge, Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor lip synched competely to well known tracks. In biopics like this year’s Walk the Line (directed by James Mangold) or last year's Beyond the Sea (directed by Kevin Spacey), the actor him or herself sings. In Romance and Cigarettes, there is a combination of all of the above, in what is the genre’s whackiest offering to date.

It is in theory the love story of a working class marriage challenged by the discovery of the man’s hot affair with a full-blown tart (Turturro’s words, not mine). But what starts out highly stylized, including an almost surreal screenplay of hot provocative lines by all characters, boils down in its final moments to a very naturalistic and very honest account of how people move from the full throes of passion (love, lust, hate, rage) to the sober reckonings of their hearts. What is full blown and robust gets expressed in song. What is quietly understood gets covered in quiet, almost minimalist dialogue scenes. Watching Romance and Cigarettes is witnessing the emergence of a compelling new visual storytelling style.

James Gandolfino and Susan Sarandon play the couple and the discovery of the affair by Sarandon’s Kitty, occurs under the opening title sequence. She sits quietly on the bed with her back to us, holding the telltale piece of paper. The mature subtle acting style of both Sarandon and Gandolfino are what make this film work. Inbetween crazy production numbers (which include a ballet of pregnant women and a separate number where hydro line workers break into dance), they act and react to thwarted love and unpeakable lust first in large gestures and then in the small choices that inevitably lead to reconciliation. Even the scene where Gandolfino finally ends the affair with gloriously vamped and red-headed Scouser, Tula (Kate Winslet) is resonant with feeling and meaning and we are moved by them both. The musical numbers provide the high style, as do some of the scenes. But most of the movie hangs on the quiet moments of truth, such as when Sarandon finally breaks her months' silence to her husband out of sheer absent-minded rage at a neighbour and he quietly says to himself, “she speaks to me”.

Musicals are making an unmistakeable upsurging reappearance. In the Dialogue series, filmmakers introduce works that have undisputedly influenced them. Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang (whose The Wayward Cloud is another very highly stylized musical) screened a Cathay musical from 1961 called The Wild Wild Rose, by director Wong Tin Lam and starring the irrepressible Grace Chang. The screening was one of those academic watershed moments for me in putting together a chain of influences of directors by providing a missing link. The period of production provides the key: just a few years after Vincente Minnelli’s An American In Paris, which this film’s opening imitates with an artist and a hand-drawn rose; and creating vividly the kind of Hong Kong culture and West meets East fashion and set decoration sense of Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, period set at exactly the same time. Grace Chang’s brassy, pouting performance is like a parody of any number of Hollywood musical actresses - so much so that you wonder if it is a send-up of MGM or the actress is in fact channeling those divas in her own inimitable style. The musical numbers are made up of new lyrics (in Mandarin) set to lounge versions of arias from Bizet’s Carmen! There is no end to the bizarre cross-cultural mish-mash of this movie and we were told that there were many like it in the period! Someone needs to do a study of the influences on North Asian musical cinema of this period and its subsequent impact on the current generation of Asian filmmakers.

In the end, The Wild, Wild Rose bogs down in its improbable storyline - but who cares?! In the meantime it offers a genuine cat fight between two hair-tearing divas and other campy cliches with such high energy, humour and style that there is nothing left but to settle in and enjoy it. If
the musical is reinventing itself (as Turturro and Ming-liang are trying to convince us) then it’s not hard to see where the inspiration comes from. Here’s hoping there’s more!

the end of the week: part 2: simple

Simple can mean many things. It can mean simple and elegant. It can mean simple and unexpectedly affecting. But it can also mean simple and therefore lacking depth or complexity. And it can mean simple and just plain stupid.

In the good simple, there is the Hollywood offering In Her Shoes, directed by Curtis Hanson, ready to hit theatres in the next month. Starring Cameron Diaz, the can-do-no-wrong Toni Collette and Shirley MacLaine, it tiptoes through a landmined field of fraught cliches and miraculously avoids them. Here good performances become the ally of a much stronger script once the story moves to Florida and the characterization of Simon Stein, as the man who woos Collette’s character is one of the finest fully-drawn sympathetic male characters of recent commercial cinema. A good date film, or fluff night, it is surprising just as Imagine Me and You was surprising until its end.

In the simple which means lacking-depth department, there is Carlos Saura’s hugely disappointing dance film Iberia. In recent years, this master of Spanish cinema has toured the world bringing us outstanding dance and art meditations on specific themes, often using only studio space, multimedia and a wealth of gifted dancers. His films Goya in Bordeaux and Tango are most notable in their ingenuity with the form and elasticity with narrative, giving us a context for a wide range of thoughtfully considered dances. Iberia doesn’t attempt either. Using the work of Isaac Albeniz as its inspiration, instead of exploring thoughtfully considered themes in the dances, Saura instead relies on situations: nuns dance alongside chadorred women (for what reason we are not told) while peasant women of great size have their own dance aria (a wonderful idea - or would be - if they could actually dance). It all seems very forced and gimmicky without any really deeply felt meaning. Too bad! from such a master - but then I should have guessed from its positioning in the week.

(In this country, we are fortunate enough to have Moze Mossanen as by far the most interesting narrative dancefilmmaker working today. Combining innovative visual style, arresting choreography and music with unusual narratives told only in dance, he in many ways fulfills what Saura’s vision is all about.)

Simple and strange is the collection of short films known as All the Invisible Children, organized by and benefitting UNICEF on the theme of children’s global suffering. Out of the seven shorts by seven eminent filmmakers, I could only stay for four, but saw enough to see (as usual with this kind of compilation) a wide range of impact and style. Strange is the only word I can think of to describe the choice made by the producers to lead off the movie with the two most incompatible films, first by Burkina Faso director Mehdi Charef and second by Serbian master filmmaker Emir Kusturica. The former, called “Tanza” deals with child rebels protecting homeland, barefoot in the jungle and armed with automatic weapons. It is dramatic and sweetly poignant and ends with a child lowering his head out of fatigue on to the bomb he has come to place in the school he used to go to. It is almost sentimental. The Kusturica, however, is a mocking, satirical look at the almost utopian prison life of Serbian gypsies and how superior it is to the lives that otherwise await them. The short is completely irreverent and almost dreamlike while staying deeply cynical. What do we make of it, in light of the first film? The most powerful of the shorts I saw was Spike Lee’s Jesus Children of America. About children living with AIDS, it was the first time I’ve seen this filmmaker take on his own community with the same command to take account he has given to white America. The film is riveting and deeply impactful at the end, but through a frank straightforward visual style. What are these films like as a collection? And what do they say? Who knows.

Simple and just plain stupid is the only way to describe Kirill Serebrennikov’s Bed Stories, a series of vignettes that take place on beds in Moscow. The director is a leading Russian theatre artist who clearly hasn’t understood yet that directing actors for the screen is all about subtlety. Characters rage, emote, gesture so largely that even in medium shots you wish you were sitting further back in the theatre. The result is over the top and unendurable.

With it, however, was the screening of a much subtler and elegant short, Twilight, by director Victoria Gamburg, about a woman obssessed with finding her missing child in the streets of St. Petersburg. Often going out at night or early morning, the life on that mystical city’s streets reveals a dampness and decay that lie just under the surface of Russian society in a post-glasnost country. A much subtler and more meaningful message than occurred on all those beds in Moscow.

the end of the week: part 1: serene

It is an unfortunate reality of this film festival (and a justifiable criticism of it) that the weakest films are programmed generally toward the end. This is partly just the politics of the film festival circuit: because industry professionals flock to the opening weekend, often directly from Venice, most are gone by the end of the week, either on to places like San Sebastien, or taking a short break before New York. As a result, the last few days become a crap shoot and even the most promissing names, performers and filmmakers can turn up empty.

In the serene column are three films: Francois Ozon’s Le Temps qui Reste, Mohammad Rasoulof’s Iron Island and Amos Gitai’s Free Zone. The three best films of the last three days, they represent a wide range of narrative and visual style by two established masters and one impressive emerging artist.

No strangers to the film festival are both Francois Ozon and Amos Gitai. Ozon’s colourful and highly idiosyncratic personal films have been popular entries in recent festivals, ranging from the crazy vamping of 8 Femmes to last year’s dramatically intense 5 x 2. In Le Temps Qui Reste, a young man diagnosed with cancer faces off against the unresolved relationships of his life and tries to settle scores before his time is up - all without telling anyone except his grandmother what is going on. Scenes of hot intensity are contrasted with longer, more deeply considered
reflective moments as the character reckons who he has been and tries to make good. Jeanne Moreau is particularly moving in a brief appearance as his only confessor. His contact with her marks the beginning of his motivated change to be remembered as someone else. Painfully realistic, it offers no easy conclusions or happy endings, though the character is eminently more likeable before he dies.

Amos Gitai’s Free Zone is the second in his trilogy that began with last year’s Promised Land and continues his exploration of lives which occur outside definable Middle Eastern states, and are also caught within their politics. In this film, Natalie Portman plays an American Jewish woman whose life circumstances put her in a car driven by an Israeli woman bent on repayment of a debt owed to her family by a Palestinian ex-pat known as “the American” living in Jordan with another Palestinian refugee woman. Don’t worry if you didn’t keep track of that. Neither did I. It doesn’t matter. The point is that all three women are powerful actresses whose characters are caught literally in a world between all borders, known as the Free Zone. They are unable to move and so are driven inward to their own personal grievances with each other. These characters drive and drive but don’t get anywhere, dancing between Jordan, Israel and Syria. They are doomed to drive in circles and search in vain for meaning. Not hard to see the symbolism there!

Mohammad Rosoullof’s exquisite Iron Island is a beautifully conceived, serene description of a made up world that is entirely plausible (one of the first questions in the post-screening Q and A was “did this really happen?”). An entrepreneurial man with a good heart establishes a small colony (essentially a village) on an abandoned oil tanker off Iran’s coast, accessible only by motorboat and an automatic lift. It is a world unto itself, where goats for a wedding are temporarily housed in the school and where love is just as forbidden among inappropriate lovers, as it is on dry land. In one of the movies most impactful scenes, a smitten young man passes to his lover on a rope through a porthole from above, his most prize belongings, while she passes back her chador mask and a bracelet. He in return sends down his shirt. The striptease can only go so far of course, before reality hits - they cannot physically send themselves. Filled with beautiful supporting characters created in simple brushstrokes, and a euphoric sequence in which boys jump off the ship after yellow barrels of oils to push them to shore, the film lives up to the fable like quality of Iranian cinema at its best - where everything is allegory and the grittiest realism has a magical quality to it.

Friday, September 16, 2005

mobile hell

I have a bet going with myself: will every single film I see have a moment that relies on cell phone conversations to move story? So far, only a few films like Water have been lacking because they are set in bygone eras. Until now I thought only voiceover narration could make me clutch my head through overuse, or bad use, but I have a new enemy!! The endlessly chirping, rattling, buzzing, singing, mobile phones of moviedom!!! As if it weren't bad enough to deal with them in life, now we get to endure it on screen as well. Apparently, no one in the world is unwired.

In Elizabethtown, Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst fall in love over their cell phones and turn them off only when standing face to face. "Shall we hang up now?", she says. Yes!, I screamed within. In Francois Ozon's powerfully moving Le Temps Qui Reste, the character resolves key relationships in phone messages. Even Iron Island, the beautiful Iranian film about homeless folks living on an abandoned tanker involved scenes where chadorred women lined up to use a mobile. What does it say about global culture that cinematic families who sleep in the same room with their goats expect to use wireless technology during the average day?

In the industry screenings, audience members are blackberrying, texting, looking lovingly at photos or simply playing solitaire when they are bored and while the movie is still showing. In life, in movie theatres, and on screen, it has become a way of avoiding courtesy and respect, and worse, minimizing or obscuring vital connections with others in which those rarities - nuance, and subtlety - occur, impossible to convey merely through voice. On film, the face is 30 feet wide. Why must it be talking on a phone?

Cell phones on screen do at least liberate the cinema phone - allowing us to make calls more visual by taking conversations into any part of the world, any conceivable environment. But is this a good thing really in the long run? Cell phones a fast story cure, a way to get from point a to point b without thinking more actively. Characters used to be more physically motivated - they experienced a gamut of emotions that forced them into active choices. They ran down streets at top speed, crossed deserts, trekked through wilderness, to be reconciled with loved ones. Now they just flip open their Nokia. Less dialogue is always more, and even less on the phone is ideal. Will I win or lose the bet? We'll see!

couple parfait and enfant terrible

Nobuhiro Suwa's beautiful film Un Couple Parfait was shot entirely in French, though the director could not speak a word. His motivation was the desire to work with noted French cinematographer Caroline Champetier and luminous, ubiquitous European actress Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi (who also appears in Francois Ozon's Le Temps Qui Reste).

Un Couple Parfait tells the story of a disintegrating relationship, but one which hangs precariously on the edge of almost broken, and almost salvageable. Brought to Paris by the wedding of friends (they also met at such an event 15 years ago), our couple (the man is played by Bruno Todeschini)come face to face with who they have always been perceived to be - the perfect couple. There are no clear villains here, just the inevitable human cycle of failed expectations. It is a very realistic model of how painfully unpredictable such times are.

Most of the film occurs in a lamplit darkness, symbolizing the sadness in the characters. As contrast, two long sequences take place in the brightly sunlit Rodin Museum in Paris, where the Bruni-Tedeschi character goes during the day to reckon her heart. Two sculptures there, one by Rodin and by Rodin's muse and lover, Camille Claudel, capture her obssessive attention. The long takes of her considering it allow us a chance to see a panorama of subtle emotion play out on her face as she sees her own life in the forms of the sculpture. In a very simple way, Suwa has embodied the beauty inherent in decay, and the eternally repeated cycles of love. Even idealised love can fail. (Rodin eventually allowed Claudel's brother to have her committed as 'insane' and she spent 50 years of her life in institution.)

The film's style is one of statically wide-framed extended shots - and one shot often covers an entire scene. In this way, it is really just 10 or 11 scenes, each covered in one shot, gorgeously framed. In the post-screening Q and A, Suwa explained that much of the film was improvised and so the choice to play out scenes in real time allowed actors room to progress naturally from one emotion to another. The framing also gave room to move within a frame, a freedom that usually marks the single greatest difference for a performer between acting for screen and for stage.

Like Haneke's Cache, the result is one of feeling like an intruder, or an uninvited observer. This is deceptively paradoxical, since when scenes play out in real time, an audience is actually allowed to feel more as well, and they do not rely on anticipating the next emotion or story element. Having a few films like this placed late in the festival, is a welcome balm.

Some of the hoopla that comes out of the Cannes Festival feels like overblown hyperbole when you actually see the film. Palme D'Or winner L'Enfant, by the Dardenne brothers is a great example. The film tells the story of a young man trying to break a cycle of theft and conmanship in order to support the woman he loves and their new baby. Also like Un Couple Parfait, much of the film plays out in real time. A harrowing sequence takes us painfully through the man's attempt to sell his child for money. When the child's mother finds out, she collapses and the man now tries to get the baby back. There is no clear moment of transcendence or realisation or culpability (which would have been nice, only so we could come to care for the character), just a fast need to rescue his relationship. The extent he must go to get the child back is longer and darker than selling the baby and hard to get worked up about since the return of the child to his world hardly solves it's problems! He has a compulsive thief for a father, and an underaged poverty stricken mother. You almost hope he doesn't succeed.

L'Enfant also makes use of the long-held static wide shots, but in this case there is too much action to keep track of to enjoy the kind of emotional investment inherent in Cache or Un Couple Parfait. The film ends on an emotional highpoint, cutting out right in its middle. This choice, after so much detached wide observation feels like a betrayal of the film's style and robs us of one of the few chances to feel. As one disgruntled industry delegate mumbled as he stumbled out of the theatre, "That won the Palme D'or?" The wine must have been freely flowing in that jury room on the Croisette!
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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

bella isabella and beautiful bilbao

Sometimes films have to be gestated like a good meal before they can be written about - and that explains the slight delay since my last posts. Though late, as you scroll below you will certainly see I am not at a loss for words!

Besides I have a good excuse for my absence. I have been in image heaven. On Monday I had two of most beautiful encounters in this festival: one was a building, the other was an actor/writer... gifted daughter-of-giants. Yes, another one. (See the Liza!!! link if you don’t know who the first one is.)

My Dad is 100 Years Old, is a loving, playful, ingenious collaboration of Canadian experimental filmmaker and badboy Guy Maddin and his recent muse, Isabella Rossellini, with whom he worked in his previous feature The Saddest Music in the World. The film is Rossellini’s tribute to her father’s centenary, coming in 2006,and Roberto Rossellini’s Rome: Open City was screened alongside it.

The rough condition of the Open City print projected on Monday was a testament all by itself to the great need for restoration and loving attention to the work of Roberto Rossellini, a man who not only helped to launch the Italian neo-realist movement, but whose work had a profound impact on the French new wave. In her beautiful love letter to her father, Isabella Rossellini wrote the script and plays all the characters - and does so with amazing conviction: Hitchcock, David O. Selznick, Fellini, Chaplin are all created in humour and great love. But nothing quite prepares you for how she floats on screen as her own mother, saying “He did not ruin my career - I ruined his” with just the right note of sadness.

How strange to see the the Maddin/Rossellini film, with its deliberate look of rough black and white scratchy texture approximating a badly kept old 40s print, alongside the copy of Open City that truly has earned its patchy projection quality through “being loved”, as the programmer put it, by screening houses for fifty years. And yet there is a hypnotic beauty to watching a film in such bad condition - it feels more like the rare treasure that it is. And if you happen to be seated in a place where you can look over your right shoulder and see the filmmaker’s daughter watching with a beguiled wistfulness, the images flickering against her skin, you will want to empty your bank account into film preservation and draw up petitions to get this master restored to his rightful place.

While Rome Open City has a 12 hanky ending, there is nothing sad about Isabella. In the post-screening dialogue, she sat perched on a stool and told story after story with playfulness, humour and charm, and great loving celebration of her father. The syllables tumbling out of her mouth in that gorgeous Italian accent like lost Medici jewels. Okay, I know, I’m a little out of control, but come on. When will I get the chance again to tell you that having asked the first question, and because of where I was sitting and the way she was drenched in light and couldn’t see, a great deal of what she said for the remaining time was directed at me, simply for the eye contact, for feeling like she was talking to someone. Let me tell you right now that being in that gaze for 45 minutes is a wondrous thing. As if the personality weren’t compelling enough, there is something especially enchanting about that voice and its desire constantly to bubble and amuse. (Even Guy Maddin thanked his girlfriend for letting him “sleep over at Isabella’s” during story sessions and at another moment, confessed, “I haven’t quite gotten over the thrill of having I. Rossellini appear on my call display.”) A story Ms. Rossellini told about meeting Anna Magnani (whom the Rossellinis called “the wolf”) was especially memorable: as a child looking down in shyness, she saw only the great goddess’ pink frilly shoes and the dozen dogs running round them. It’s worth noting that on Monday she herself was wearing exquisite brown crepe pull on boots. Enough!

Sydney Pollack, the American director, is noted primarily these days as a producer more than a filmmaker. A man whose early directing days include They Shoot Horses Don’t They and Out of Africa, his more recent films like Sabrina and Sliding Doors, feel somehow incomplete, almost-great works. Luckily, there are nothing but compelling moments in his current documentary, Sketches of Frank Gehry, a tribute to an old friend and possibly the world’s greatest living architect.

What Canadian does not know the name Frank Gehry? If you’ve been anywhere near the Art Gallery of Ontario in recent months, you wouldn’t be able to avoid it, as the maestro has designed the revisioning of that Toronto arthouse that is well underway. I have always known generally who he is, and that he is home grown, but it wasn’t until viewing this wonderful, irreverent and awe-inspiring documentary that I came face to face with his work. Pollack’s long intimate friendship with Gehry allows an unusually candid almost confessional tone – even Gehry’s shrink offers secrets to his psyche! And there are wonderful insights into how inspiration occurs, such as when Pollack describes how he is influenced by music into finding images as a filmmaker. Gehry responds that the same thing happens to him with art. Quickly pulling out a print of Heronimus Bosch, he traces the outlines of figures and translates them into architectural shapes.

The pacing of the film is like a single crescending line of a music: we are lulled into seduction by the whimsical playfulness of personal residence creations, then move to larger structures and buildings until, like Dante entering paradise (I know I’m overusing it), suddenly there we are in
Bilbao, Spain. For the second time in this festival, I burst into sudden tears.

Pollack’s gift is that he knows when to keep silent and allow us to just observe beauty. The reflection of water on the gold metal of the Guggenheim Museum in daylight, the upwardly swirling textures like the clouds they meet, are given to us in silence. Those who appreciate the true meaning of cathedral, in terms of a space which exalts the great glory of what man is capable of, will experience this museum in the same way I’m sure. In the two days since, I have not been able to get its glorious shapes out of my mind.

silence and spelling bees

The third Juliette Binoche film at the festival (and alas, the last) is probably the weakest, though not for lack of sophisticated talents involved and a lot of deep thinking. Bee Season is a collaboration of directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel with a screenplay by Naomi Foner Gyllenhall. To celebrate, the entire Gyllenhall family was in attendance at my screening. I overheard Jake say to a publicist, “Mom is doing press on the carpet”. The screenplay is indeed worth celebrating. A complex adaptation of a book by Myra Goldberg, it tells the story of a Jewish family, and the obssessions that plague all its members. Only the Binoche character becomes revealed as clinically compulsive, but all the other characters demonstrate various degrees of obssessive need. Father Saul (yes, Richard Gere is playing a Jewish theologian. Uh- huh. That’s right) is obssessed with the possibility that his daughter’s proclivity for spelling bees is a sign that she has a mystic gift. Meanwhile, brother Aaron, played by Max Minghella, is being wooed into the Hare Krishna by Kate Bosworth. (Okay, an aside. You gotta love Hollywood. Only in that town could a young actress go from being the love interest of Kevin Spacey in Beyond the Sea, to the love interest of a fifteen year old in this movie, in the same year.)

Though very deeply considered and approached with love from all around, the film does not quite find the revelatory understanding that it promises. The fate of mother Miriam (Binoche)upstages everyone else’s tragedies and with even an understated performance here, there really is nothing else that seems worth feeling equally. Unfortunately, it is not the main storyline and the movie drifts to an unsatisfactory conclusion with the one that is.

A happier experience, and one of the most serene of this festival, is Into Great Silence, a three hour documentary on monastic life by Philip Groening. Groening moved in with a community of Carthusian monks in the French Alps near Grenoble for six months and recorded, in exquisite detail, the transcendent simplicity of everyday life. The entirely static camera observes life, almost the way Haneke’s camera observed, but here the observation is not at all predatory. A monk sweeping his cell, a young novice bowing and kissing each of his new brothers at his commissioning, liturgies held in near darkness, the panoramic sky and snow over the monastary time lapsed for us over 24 hours in stars, clouds, sun and darkness, the red glow of night candlelight, all leave behind deep impressions. Even inanimate objects take on lasting significance, such as when the camera dwells on the rings of water in a holy water basin after the hands have dipped in it, or the towel used for wiping those hands hangs on, ruffled and wet. Reminiscent in style of last year’s Touch the Sound, by Thomas Riedelsheimer, this is documentary filmmaking at its most ethereal.

cache, sorry and snow in venice

Michael Haneke, a sometimes enfant terrible of European cinema, has an extraordinary visual style: stark, unapologetic and lingering just long enough to capture something unexpected. He is reminiscent of that other master, Kubrick, who legendarily made actors perform things over and over until a new version of what they were doing emerged. In Cache (Hidden), which won the director’s prize at Cannes this year, he has created a truly frightening combination of these qualities in order to comment on society’s obssession with privacy and the invasion thereof. A successful television host (this kind of character is popular - see Mary, also starring Juliette Binoche) is plagued by tapes delivered to his home, which make it clear that he is being watched. The tapes are accompanied by violent drawings. Things escalate and his son disappears. But I won’t go any further.

The opening image of this brilliant piece is the exterior street and the house of our heros, held for an extended period of time. One shot. People come and go. Even one of our characters exists and walks away and still the camera does not move and we do not cut. Instead, all of a sudden the image freezes, and is rewound, making it clear that what we have been watching is in fact a tape. It’s a powerful way to draw us into the heart of this film’s complexities. Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche become increasingly tormented and the strain pulls the marriage apart. The twists and turns take us into alarming territory and we are never certain if what we are watching is the action of the film or recorded action within the film. This is a cineaste’s dream: where the static camera records with objectivity what the moving camera can only suddenly explain. Not to be missed.

Strange twists and turns were also the order of Jeff Stanzler’s Sorry Haters, a strange American indie about a New York woman who hails a cab driven by a Syrian immigrant and commences an uneasy relationship that lasts more than 24 hours. By turns taut, harrowing and deeply disturbing, the story points reveal to us slowly a very diseased psyche, disguising itself in society with apparent ease. Breathtaking performances by Robin Wright Penn and Abdellatif Kechiche do not, however, completely sell the film, which is meant to be an ode to the chaos of trust and prejudice extant in a post-9/11 society. The hairpin turns on character are hard to take in stride with the speed at which we are asked to digest them. I left the cinema deeply affected but not necessarily impressed. Still under consideration.

Another ‘half hour’ experience of Sunday was one of timetabling, not achievement. As part of the Canadian retrospective on the work of Don Owen, a number of his films have been screened. The one that slid into my available slot was Snow In Venice, a profile of that Wavelength genius Michael Snow, as he prepares for the Venice Bienalle in 1971. More amusing than the deep throated voiceover classic to CBC projects of the period, is the strange waifish simplicity of Snow himself, creating an art installation while killing time in the city of canals, by tossing his locks and photographing himself with great monuments behind him on a polaroid camera. This silliness becomes just plain funny and Owen treats it exactly so. There is no attempt to make it sober or profound. The real revelation here, however, is Joyce Wieland,the “Mrs. Snow” referred to in the voiceover. A great artist in her own right, and equally as deserving of the mantle of celebrity, she is nonetheless relegated here to helping her husband line himself up with the Bridge of Sighs. Thank god this was the decade of feminism! or we might still know her only in these terms. There is one lovely passage, however, in which she talks about the witnesses to great works of history, like Madame de Stael, while sitting in a breezy chair, tossing her own great black locks out of her face as Venice echoes behind her. These are the kinds of gems that float out of an open vault.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

juliette istina

Day 3 (Part 1) Somewhere in the deep lowness of this page, I talk about how Juliette Binoche has become for me an actor I will follow into any unknown world like Dante following Beatrice. There simply isn't a face that registers emotion as truthfully or as profoundly anywhere in moviedom. As a person who lives a life of active faith, having this actor play Mary Magdalene is spiritually akin to sitting on a mountaintop in Tibet and reflecting on prayer flags. Abel Ferrera's powerful and stirring Mary begins with a film within the film, in which Binoche, as Mary, rolls aside Jesus' tomb and enters to find only his shroud and a group of strange-looking angels. She starts to weep and when asked why, says, her face slowly melting:
They have taken my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.
That was it for me. My festival was over. Because quite simply, there isn't going to be a more sublime moment than that, although a scene later on also in the film within a film, when she responds to the Apostle Peter's accusation that she has lied or made up stories told to her by Jesus, is equally astonishing. As she starts to consider the enormity of the accusation, her transcendent face is again breathtaking.

The complexities of the film itself I am still unravelling. But I know that I liked its male characters' hollow desperation and craving for some kind of meaning, while simultaneously acting in reprehensible ways. Everyone is very strong here. Matthew Modine as a self-obsessed filmmaker who allows himself to play Jesus and Forest Whittaker as a tv producer caught in a spiritual maelstrom as his life unravels around his choices, are equally compelling. Abel Ferrera's very dark camera, both hauntingly static and rushing forward into chaos, serves the film perfectly. Pacing, narrative structure are still, however, in review in my head. But it won't matter. The only thing I will ever see when I think of this film is that beautifully stricken face, looking for the body of the crucified rabbi.

imagine entre tideland benares

Day 3 (Part 2) One of the advantages of an industry pass is being able to leave one screening and slip into another. The chance to view something even briefly without having to pay the freight of the public screening tickets and lineups is what having this pass is all about. A long time ago, when sheer ambition and stamina allowed me to gather 60 viewings in a festival, the half hour rule became my marker for passing the ball along to the other side of the abacus as "viewed". The rule works well. I have sometimes stayed for the whole screening of a movie I was ready to leave in ten minutes just because I had made myself get through another twenty minutes and it got better.

There were two 'half hours' today. Both had been front runners in my coding. The first, Entre ses Mains, is by french filmmaker, Anne Fontaine, whom I interviewed in the 2002 festival. That year I was attending on a press pass, working for an unrenowned website that was hanging on to life by a thread. Getting interviews was like begging for change on the streets of Calcutta. The steely eyed judging glances of publicity sorceresses are scarring for life.
Who do you work for?!!

Anne Fontaine was willing to see me and for this I was eternally grateful, despite being asked at the last moment to conduct the interview in a restaurant of the Sutton Place Hotel, while the filmmaker ate, and entirely in French. Both the woman herself, and her publicist were lovely people, an oasis of kindness in the no man's land of filmfest press shallowness and I swore I would see every movie this woman made for the rest of our mutual lives.

Entre ses Mains is a kind of thriller, in that it explores the relationship between a happily married insurance agent and her client, a complex veterinarian who dotes on her. The thriller part is that he may or may not be a serial killer at large in the town. Anne Fontaine's narrative style is too extremely subtle to be truly in the genre, but that subtlety is good. Her camera is itself predatory - she stalks her story, always just a bit behind its twists and turns, which really aren't that significant in the end, but always feel like they are. She feeds on our anticipation of what might be really going on, just as her heroines do. In her 2002 film, Nathalie, Fanny Ardant is convinced that her husband is cheating on her with Emmanuelle Beart so she stalks her, becoming obssessed with the woman herself. In that film, her ambiguous desire to understand what makes her husband's lover compelling was strong enough emotion to draw her into a web of possible danger. (And hey, okay, it's Fanny Ardant and Emmanuelle Beart!) In Entre Ses Mains, Claire (Isabelle Carre), has no such compelling motivation in forming a relationship slowly with her predator. She is not really sexually compelled, but personally charmed - and yet we are not really persuaded that even that is enough to justify saying yes to his invitations, especially after we know who she suspects he is. What woman would continue to go out on coffee dates with a possible serial killer? All drama hinges on character credibility - if we believe them, we can follow them anywhere. If we don't, we leave the screening at the half hour, feeling ooooh so guilty.

The second half hour came in the middle. After standing in line for a packed screening, waiting for someone to leave, I finally got into Tideland, Terry Gilliam's much anticipated macabre fantasy of a neglected girl, which turns out to be a strange hybrid of genre styles, held together by a performance being much ballyhooed by the young Jodelle Ferland. The floating, active camera that I loved so much in Day 1 movies is here being used to take us into the mind of a child - an ideal choice, but one which only works if the visual world of the film offers some kind of contrast. In Tideland, everything is bizarre and surreal and it's hard to tell 'reality' from her imaginative life. It is just relentless, and its central performance far too theatrical to be credible. Ferland's manner and gesture make her seem at times like a 9 year old impression of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. The half hour rule did allow me, however, to enjoy long-time favourite actress Janet McTeer, in a few memorable scenes as a witch/guardian to a mentally challenged boy. Unfortunately, she could not cast a spell on the whole film, and I was soon in the lobby again.

The day began with Imagine Me and You, which is listed everywhere as this film's "Working Title". Here we are back in the world of Elizabethtown and Shopgirl style commercial features not yet ready for release. What's going on? Movies are getting made before they are ready because folks are not hiring (or listening to) their story editors! Still, this story of a woman (Piper Perabo) who falls in love on her wedding day with her gorgeous (oh my god!) florist (Lena Headey) had a lot going for it in the first two thirds - including a naturally paced and refreshingly truthful look at relationships and how they form and end. Then, all of a sudden out of nowhere, the film runs head on into a Richard Curtis-style UK Brit comedy commercial formula and watching the last third is like witnessing a train derailment: you sit there, hypnotically entranced in horror as it all falls apart. Only Richard Curtis can do what Richard Curtis does. He has a knack for it. That's what makes him Richard Curtis. Oliver Parker, who directed today's film, is not Richard Curtis but something also very fine so why does he want to be Richard Curtis? And too bad! Until that point, it was refreshing to see real chemistry in lesbian characters on screen. Of course, in this version there's a happy ending, but one achieved in about a half hour less than the movie required to fulfill its narrative style and pacing. Characters leap over insuperable obstacles, pass the baton of cliches to each other, race emotional catharsis AND crowded London streets to be able to kiss passionately before the 100 minute mark. Story editing 911. Hopefully, they are going back into the editing room after Toronto.

An unexpected pleasure today was Byarlen Pyamootoo's Benares, the first film of importance to emerge from Mauritius, that island whose name rolls off the tongue like delicious. Two young men with a little money and the day off, venture a long distance to the nearest capital to find girls and bring them home. Perhaps one of the most conspicuous cultural differences is how these young girls (who are pretty and very unconventional hookers) are bought - the bargaining issue is not money, but whether they will go to Benares. Once in the back of the truck driven by a kind older man, the long journey home under the stars affords a natural environment for self-discovery before the arrangement has to kick in. The film is gloriously lacking in any cliches or sentimental story points. The foursome are equally intelligent and philosophical, spiritual and wistful by accident and in turns with no clear developmental design. Meanwhile, a strange jazz soundtrack plays over the deep lush cobalts, aquamarines and almost fluorescent green landscape that is rolling past. Low, flat lush vegetation marked by the occassional palms shooting out of the ground and mountains in backdrop. It was a ride you almost wanted to be on. When the characters fall asleep on each other and the truck rattles on, it's hard to imagine their dreams being better than what is passing all around them.

Friday, September 09, 2005


Day 2 (Part 1) Few dreams can escort us right into precise moments of our past. When the lights went down in the Elgin theatre today, and Liza Minnelli burst on to a 1972 concert stage singing “Yes!”, possibly the most life-affirming song ever written, I burst into tears. Hanging in the song and the moment were a thousand emotional threads taking me back to my teenaged life, my early passion for cinema, an idol crush and the loss of a dear friend. Luckily I was in good company: everyone at today’s screening of the Bob Fosse-directed concert film Liza with a 'Z' had only the deepest gratitude for her being with us, applauding and cheering after every number with their own secret stories in their hearts.

I was 13 when I first fell in love with the long fluid gorgeous lines of Liza Minnelli. As a teenager, the group of mostly gay friends to which I belonged had the kind of cult worship of Cabaret that others devoted to the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Minnelli’s youthful and energetic desire for corruption in that movie came from a place movies have not been to since, which is a well spring of duality in character that was fucked up, but resolutely and almost cheerfully so. Her Sally Bowles loved life - and that which corrupted her, and the pain of her loneliness was in the end matched only by the joy that living the life she had chosen gave. It was a strange message, but one that allowed us a certain freedom necessary at the time just to be who we were. Well into our adult years, we used the phrase, “I was out all night - bomsoming like mad..” Or “there’s only one thing to do with types like Natalya - pounce!”

Most of us saw Liza with a Z back then, and most of us were there today. Except John, who died this year. Our friend John would have loved to see Liza in person, looking fabulous in her shimmering purple, or belting out, in answer to a question, a few fabulous strains of “Yes”. He would have shrieked with us, cheered with us. He would have reminded us (so we did it for him)that it was his love of Liza that brought some of us together, that introduced us to friendships of more than 35 years. He would have had a thoughtful observation about the beautiful exuberance and happiness she showed in the post-screening Q and A, her essential generosity as a peformer, as a person. He would have said it, because he too was like that. Like Minnelli, he had a life full of challenge, but also like her, he landed squarely on the side of joy wherever possible.

Life isn’t really a Cabaret, as both of them will tell you. (In recent years, Minnelli has inserted a “not” in the famous “When I go, I’m going like Elsie” line of the song “Cabaret.”) But the desire to say “yes” instead of “no” to life’s misadventures, is definitely in the style of both. And for that reason alone, they will always be my heros.
This movie deserves its own post, for teaching me how to dream a long time ago.

sublime sarandon

Day 2. (Part 2) Those who know and remember Lars von Trier’s provocative Dogville will do well to have that film under their belts as the threshold for sustaining his even more controversial Manderlay. An equally astonishing film, it would be easy to be fooled into thinking that it was “just like” Dogville, since it shares the same theatricalized soundstage setting, rudimentary set,lighting and props. But it isn’t really the same at all. If Dogville was satirical, Manderlay is downright subversive, a word that used to mean ‘undermining’ but in today’s world has come to mean ‘looking for truth’. In order to be truly subversive, you must love that which you also hate or criticize, for only in the tension of those two opposing views will the truth prevail. Manderlay,like its predecessor, portrays the beauty in America’s idealism, the pursuit of democracy, the desire for equality and union, while simultaneously casting these virtues as leading only to despotism and ruin when applied indiscriminately. The film’s politic revolves around racial and cultural clashes and nation building, iconically represented by slavery in the deep south. Parts of it are so achingly relevant they are almost impossible to watch, such as the sequence in which a duststorm lays waste the entire community, leaving behind spoiled food and uninhabitable domains that no one thought imaginable. Convert the dust to water and the southern accents worn by the characters will take you to New Orleans in a blink. The inability of a nation to cope with its own catastrophes becomes stark and tragic. With strong performances by the ensemble company and a more highly stylized set environment (less stencilled outlines and labels, more highly suggestive set pieces) Von Trier has never been more on his game.

Someone still learning the game is filmmaker Dionysius Zervos, whose The Shore is the beginning of a trilogy he hopes to make, loosely influenced by Kieslowski’s Three Colours trilogy (see L’Enfer below). There are ‘quotations’ from Kieslowski’s Blue in this film, particularly when his young mother character tries to drown herself in a swimming pool at night. Set in New Jersey, and loosely revolving around the impact on a family of a child’s disappearance while on the beach, The Shore is a great example of how movies can work even when they don’t work. Scene for scene, the film is lacking essential scenes and coverage and a more considered way of evolving its emotional lines so that we experience a journey and not a haphazard collection of moments of being. And yet, despite its failings, The Shore stays with you. Lesley Ann Warren (and where has she been?) turns in a performance as the momentarily negligent grandmother that sneaks up on you and bites you at the film’s finale. Her face registers everything the film is trying to express. It is a beautifully controlled performance, even when dealing with overwritten cliches and unnatural time gaps and jumps. Her changing face plunges us to the film’s heart and floats it to us right to the end.

And speaking of actresses who save movies, there is no other way to talk about the luminous Susan Sarandon and the glowing Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, Cameron Crowe’s commercial American feature due for release later this fall. A publicist explained to the industry gathered at today’s screening that the film was still “in progress”. It is a rare privilege to see a movie in a polished state of “almost”. (Too bad that wasn’t the case with Shopgirl!) The film is indeed rambling as it currently stands, allowing its lead characters to fall in love over the phone (literally) and sporting a road trip from Kentucky to Oregon that feels like it runs in real time. Elizabethtown takes its rabble-scrabble rough visioning and allows it to embody all the film wanted to be. And although it is not ready for release, there is a beauty in all the chaos. While Shopgirl used quirky character bits to entertain us, the zaniness of a young woman here is used to reveal her deeper inner life, which she has shared with few people. And where the two leads in Shopgirl jumped into bed together, Drew Baylor (Orlando Bloom) and Claire (Kirsten Dunst) come more slowly to how deeply they feel. The superficial they know, the deeper they cannot allow themselves to face - though they are hypnotically drawn whenever they are together.

That said, the movie is completely stolen by Sarandon, whose capacity to grade a performance to reach a certain place, no matter how much screen time she has or what kind of movie she’s in, is unparallelled in my opinion. Essentially a supporting role, her Hollie Baylor, grieving the death of her husband, sails through a series of avoidance life-affirming hobbies culminating in a stand-up comedy routine at her husband’s memorial, followed by a tap dance that is emotionally glorious. Its warmth and quiet essential truth, once again, captures everything the movie wants to say in its long romantic sequences between the leads. Her quiet shuffle to “Blue Moon” across a bare stage is one of the emotional high points of my festival so far. (As is Minnelli’s “Yes”)

But a word to the folks at Paramount: never tell a bunch of industry professionals that a film is a work in progress. Before the tail credits are even underway, everyone knows what’s wrong.
The road trip has got to go.
Oh that cell phone sequence — way too long!
You have to end the funeral at the tap dance. Why go further?
End the movie at the tap dance!
A papier mache bird that catches fire –?? Come on!

As I sat trying to read the scrolling names, my ears were aflame with mini-Eberts, ready to assess the failings. Meanwhile, Roger Ebert himself, quietly ducked out.

Tonight’s dreams will be about dancing. Like Eve in yesterday’s Eve and the Firehorse, dancing in the arms of Jesus and Buddha, my dreams will have me hoofing it with Liza and Sarandon - and really, what more could a gal dream for!?

Thursday, September 08, 2005

water puddles rain

Day 1. Pouring rain. Pouring cats and dogs, and speaking of which, I miss my hana! My festival began today with soaking feet and a yogurt tin that burst in my brand new festival bag. There was cursing on Bloor Street. Wet hair, and Leather-bound puddles for feet.
Then the sun came out, the lights went down, and the Toronto International Film Festival flickered to life.

They were all there again.

Filing into this morning’s first screening at 9:00 a.m. were the familiar faces, a little older, a little greyer. Badges swinging on designer strings, coffees firmly in hand. The dialogue of the industry screening room chatter would never make it past a first draft. Too repetitive:
Just get here?
From Venice. Stopped in London for a meeting.
Just got here?
Yeah, from Venice.

The only thing that changed was the connecting city.
My colleagues have a wide range of accents and the same fatigue. Like true junkies they are ready for more. Venice, by all accounts, was great. Toronto’s looking even better.

I love a moving camera. I teach editing theory that the moving camera brings us into the emotional world of a film while a static camera pushes through story. The close up and the POV belong to both worlds. To characterize Day 1 is to talk about the moving camera: the fluid,twirling of Danis Tanovic’s camera swirling down from above in L’Enfer. The gentle push-ins on the face of a haunted child in Julia Kwan’s Eve and the Firehorse, and the reverse tracking shots around fast corners as little Chuiya runs through an Indian market after... yes, her runaway
puppy... in Deepa Mehta’s Water. In every case, the moving camera was the path into the soul of the filmmaker.

And what souls they are!! The feature debut of Canadian Julia Kwan took on the imaginative religious life of two Asian Canadian sisters in the 1970s. The deep yearning for spirituality meets the desire to cope with loss and death and make sense out of laws and superstitions. Both girls are Buddhists who become Catholic zealots, hoping to change the course of luck in their family through good deeds. The imaginative Eve, born in the year of the fire horse, is much more drawn to the dancing buddha and goddesses of her native faith. Her sister Karena prefers the comfort of a Biblical Jesus. Both girls get caught up in the superstiton and unexplainable laws that often frame religion. Julia Kwan, cites French Canadian filmmaker Lea Pool as her “director consultant” and the movie has much in common with Pool’s films in the raw edge of chaos that exists under the surface of moral righteousness. Memorable moments include Jesus and Buddha dancing in the living room - pulling Eve into their arms. The best moving shot of this film,however, is a slow tracking shot in on a hospital window, where the grandmother of Eve’s obsession stands, gently waving to the girls on the street below. Still alive, but on the threshold of death.

The astonishing Water, by Deepa Mehta, is simply one of the best films I’ve seen in recent memory. Only a skillful filmmaker could turn a story about a widowed child-bride forced to live out her life in a widow’s ashram in India, into something hauntingly beautiful. Her new family are complex and deeply drawn, cruel and kind, exercising a range of emotion merely to get through a day. Child-widow Chuiya, 8 years old, spends the movie bending her naturally exuberant will into the severe and stricken lifestyle of her new world. The performances, particularly by Sarala as Chuiya and Seema Biswas as the middle-aged faithful Didi, pack a punch that is only really understood at the movie’s finale, a soulful sequence that brings the two characters into the path of Mahatma Ghandi, whose philosophy and promise of change hover over the film’s storyline as its only breath of hope. Mostly ignored by the characters, he is their salvation in the end. Careful, finely observed emotional lines, take us to a 7 hanky ending, but not a sentimental one and not one forseen. The tenderness in the generosity of the characters is only a razor thin line away from the capacity for cruelty or indifference. Mehta walks the line like a blind tightrope walker, confident in the net of vision underneath her.

Blindness is the subject of Eric Khoo’s Be With Me. Teresa Chan, the Helen Keller of Asia, has written an autobiography that is here interwoven with three separate stories of love gone astray. A teenaged lesbian flirtation, an overweight security guard’s attempts to write a love letter on rose stationary to a woman and the grief of an old man at the loss of his wife, slowly interweave and dynamically become a part of the memoir, though Chan meets only the old man. Most of the film is shot MOS, with scoring or empty ambience. There is little dialogue and instead a brilliant use of an alternative to voiceover: visual text messaging, and the subtitled, but unspoken biographical text of a blind-deaf woman. It is Chan, playing herself, in her last years, who holds the emotional threads of the film together - the most sublime moment comes when she meets the
father of her translator, who has been cooking for her. Feeling the tears on his face, she draws him into an immediate embrace. It becomes clear that broken love is what causes suffering.

Broken love is also the definition of Danis Tanovic’s L’Enfer, or Hell, the sequel to Tom Tykwer’s Heaven, and the next in the trilogy of themed films written by Krysztof Kieslowski and long time writing partner Krysztof Piesiewicz prior to Kieslowski’s death in 1995. The three scripts were in varied stages of readiness but each filmmaker who takes on the projects, seems to want most to homage the great Polish filmmaker who would have directed these films. Like Tykwer’s Heaven, a constantly moving camera explores, often in spiralling motions, the hell of psychological and emotional anguish caused by broken love or broken faith. Philosophical, deeply reflective and emotionally taut, the story of three sisters playing out as adults the deep and long lasting damage of a shared childhood traumatic event, leaves us feeling like we have been trapped in a whirlpool. Swirling water, a theme of the day, takes the form of rain in Hell,pulling the characters ever downward.

The one misfire of Day 1 was the only commercial North American feature - Shopgirl, directed by Anand Tucker. Based on Steve Martin’s book, the story of a glove counter Saks saleswoman (played by Claire Danes) trying to find love in two unlikely places, sought out every possible cliche in the first twenty minutes — and found them! I would like to know at what hour of the clock on what day of what year did quirkiness of character become synonymous with depth. A character’s zaniness can be insightful but something deeper must allow us to connect in a more meaningful way. Shopgirl was like chewing on cold french fries – conjuring the guilt and disappointment of unnecessary calories and failed anticipation.

Luckily, the rest of the day was like piping hot, freshly salt and malt vinegared frites. A dream indeed, for someone stuck on the South Beach diet, who hasn’t eaten a potato in weeks!

To bed, to dream. Of water in all forms - rain, holy water, deep ocean containing the spirits of drowned horses, and more rain. At 11:30 as I write this, even my shoes are still a little damp.