Every year, people grumble. Every year, someone points out how much worse it is than before. And every year, there are films that pull everyone out of the doldrums and guarantee it all continues. Welcome to the world of film festivals, and to this season’s Toronto International Film Festival in particular: bigger, brighter, more overwhelming, less intimate, and in the end, exactly as satisfying as the films each audience member happens to stumble into.
Every year, too, bad new behavior appears off-screen to tip the balance into hopeless vulgarity. This year, it was young creeps with Blackberrys or iPhones who texted and emailed throughout the press and industry screenings until made to stop by those sitting nearby (thank you, Meredith Brody, and all the other anonymous theater vigilantes). I figure we’re only a few months away from the sight of some credentialed barbarian watching one film on the big screen and another, simultaneously, on a hand-held one.
Still, year after year, we slog through it all for the magic that materializes when films meet audiences en masse, when debuts that change the barometric pressure in the theatre are witnessed, when serendipity offers up double and triple bills that bounce meanings and narratives off one another like a billiards game of the gods. After opening weekend, critical consensus pointed to 2008 as a solid but not earth-shattering year. I write this with four days left to go in the festival, though, anything’s still possible.
One of the eternal games of film-festival life is spotting the trends. Of course, there never really are any, just the chance roll of the dice: what films we see, what films we miss, what meaning we are able to make of that combination. This year, my nose led me into a thicket exploring subjectivity. Sure, subjectivity is always present, but this year in these films, it was used as a style, as a shiv to pry open the trap doors hiding secrets of the soul, trauma, heartbreak and the secrets of history. For all the talk of film-world collapse, with the fear and concern trailing the shuttering of distributors and further consolidation, it is so very crucial to be reminded that filmmakers all over the world are still using the feature-film model to make sense of life, to get under the skin of human beings, to make their very best effort to communicate to the rest of us what is at stake. Miracles happen, still, even at film festivals. Especially at film festivals.
1) History, revisited and revised
Steve McQueen—the Black British artist, not the action star—came to Toronto already anointed by the Cannes Film Festival’s Camera d’Or prize for his debut feature, Hunger. With an entourage of fans, he made no attempt at false modesty. Luckily for him, the film is good enough to excuse any behavior by its director, even when he made statements about Hunger being about people, not politics. Given that Hunger is a reexamination of the events in The Maze Prison in 1981—when Bobby Sands and other IRA prisoners went on strike first against wearing uniforms, then against prison hygiene, then finally against food, leading to the death of Sands and nine others—such a statement struck me as perverse, if not disingenuous. Perhaps McQueen is just trying to protect himself from the certain Belfast backlash (Sands’ death was followed by rioting and a funeral of 100,000 at the time), but his film packs an enormous punch nonetheless.
This is a film that envisions subjectivity with astonishing success, that pierces clichés to envision extreme acts with piercing clarity, and that carries an important lesson into the present: that people will use their bodies and their own mortality to send a message to the forces of power if all other avenues, moralities, and options are denied them. The prisoners’ demand? Not a free Ireland, not even a withdrawal of British troops. No, all they wanted was to have their status of political prisoner restored, along with minimal rights to communication. So simple, but the film teaches us with brutal viscerality that the system of total repression could admit no such solution to its all-or-nothing system of dehumanization. Hunger is, in that sense, an important follow-up to Errol Morris’s Abu Ghraib documentary in showing the urgency of comprehending the politics of resistance by non-statist actors and exposing the hidden but horrific brutality deployed against political defiance by individuals. But Hunger is not a documentary: instead, it uses a full toolbox of techniques from extreme close-up to one extremely long take to put the audience, body and soul, back into that grim space of fatal inequity.
Hunger wasn’t the only bonafide time machine transporting viewers back into a past rendered immediate. The legendary Wong Kar-Wai showed up in Toronto, more relaxed and at ease than he’s been in years, bearing a remarkable gift: The Ashes of Time Redux, his personal restoration of his own 1992 martial-arts epic of heartbreak and betrayal in mythic times. San Francisco, be proud! A local warehouse of Chinatown movie-theatre prints provided some of the original materials incorporated into this definitive version. I remember seeing what I thought was the original version in 1995 in New York City, a version that WKW identified to me as one of the "Chinatown"? abbreviations. This one seems far more accessible than that one, and so is WKW himself. Stop the presses: He’s begun to remove his sunglasses once in a while! Really, the reports were breathlessly shared in the halls and I even saw it myself. Yeah, well, the film’s pretty wonderful, too. WKW denies that he’s changed all that much. What he admits to is having made it ten minutes shorter, added intertitles at key intervals, and commissioned a new score and arrangement by Yo-Yo Ma to add to the original soundtrack.
No doubt, these finesses render the film’s former opacity more transparent. But I suspect they’re not really the reason that the film hits the audience now like a sucker-punch to the gut.
No, two things have changed in the intervening decade-plus. First, the swordplay genre that WKW was drawn to, in a striking change from his more contemporary material of the time, was little-known to art cinema audiences at the time. Western audiences didn’t know how to read the genre, while genre fans in Asia or Chinatown cinemas didn’t know what to make of the film’s poetic treatment, symbolic landscapes, or indecipherable narrative. Today, after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, there’s a more educated public and a greater knowledge of the genre which WKW was audaciously reinventing back then.
But there’s another, more acute, reason, too. The original Ashes of Time had an all-star cast: Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung, the superstars of the 90s. But it starred the one and only Leslie Cheung as the heartbroken anti-hero who can no longer love. The death of Cheung by suicide in the intervening years makes this Ashes of Time Redux release almost unbearably tragic. They say that history is the best editor. In this case, it’s doubled the heartbreak.
2) Father knows best
Continuing the game of theme-spotting, I found two films that explored with subtle intimacy and the timing of expert observation the entirely different lives of fathers in tough situations, trying to do right by their daughters. In one case, that meant driving a taxicab through the occupied territories of Palestine. In the other, it meant driving a subway train through Paris and its suburbs. There are no riots in either film, no hyped-up cinematic climaxes, no bullshit. Instead, in the hands of master storytellers Claire Denis and Rashid Mashawari, we get the very best that a film festival can offer us: a new way of seeing, of hearing, touching, breathing, thinking.
Laila’s Birthday is the third of Mashawari’s films to play Toronto and the first in which he has managed to turn the hopelessness of daily life in the occupied territories into an unexpectedly happy ending, thanks to the black humor which has become a trademark of Palestinian cinema. Masharawi’s unique blend of fiction and documentary dictates that the challenges of the streets intrude on his frames: Checkpoints are omnipresent, Red Crescent ambulances never far away and nothing is ever simple. Here, Masharawi presents a judge who, denied a bench, makes do with a taxi as his instrument of justice. Already being compared to Chaplin and Keaton for his deadpan demeanor, Mohamed Bakri is a stoic sufferer with a menu of facial expressions who holds fast to his principles in the midst of chaos. Mashawari’s careful pacing, which never rushes to any conclusions, reinforces the sense of random destiny that throws the game at the end. It’s lovely: the film, as well as the maturity of vision that Mashawari put on display.
That maturity was on full view, too, in Claire Denis’ new feature, 35 Shots of Rum, which drew raves in Venice and deserves them. Denis is back in stride: here, bypassing stereotypes and "problem film" formulas entirely with a quotidian tale of a single dad (played by her regular hero, Alex Descas) who isn’t struggling to raise his daughter (a debut by Mati Diop). Lionel’s got it all under control: a good job, a good girl who’s in college, a neat apartment, supportive neighbors, an orderly life. Happily, the drama never spirals out of control with urban crime or fake three-act structures. Instead, Denis characteristically builds her story via small accretions and tiny gestures, exploring the gentle dilemma of a father and daughter forced by life to break their Oedipal bond.
The subway tracks that appear over and over out Descas’ train conductor’s window, shining in the dark, crisscrossing each other at junctions and interweaving like abstract sculptures, don’t run straight, and neither does 35 Shots of Rum. The title refers to liquor, not gunfire. The only blasts are a fateful visit to a locked café and an unexpected road trip to visit…Ingrid Caven! What the film does do is to plunge us deep into intimacy, shaped by the rhythms of daily life: Slippers, a rice cooker, and a cat play pivotal roles. The actors aren’t bad either: four central characters, four terrific performances, featuring a smitten Gregoire Colin and a heartrending study in unrequited love by Nicole Dogue. Denis is working the greatest of themes: Whatever the neighborhood, the heart can’t be denied.
3) True stories of horror, tragedy, and…the food supply?
Anyone still wondering about the differences between film and journalism has only to check out Last Stop 194 and Waltz with Bashir. They both take true-story material and then spin it in opposite directions to come up with stories that want to grip audiences by bringing the news home to roost, taking the macro and making it microscopically close.
Take the first. Bruno Barreto is one of Brazil’s best-known directors. Three generations of his family have held a grip on Brazilian film production, with Bruno best known for his 1970s smash hit, Dona Flor and Her two Husbands.
Surprisingly, a director known for feel-good commercial films here tries for a feel-bad one, taking up the infamous bus-hijacking case popularized by the 2002 documentary Bus 174. The filming is straightforward and workmanlike, verging on docudrama style, yet the power of its true story elevates it above the true-crime genre. Barreto is clearly trying to grapple with the social ailments of Rio where classes live side-by-side, divided by unimaginable gulfs. The story of Sandro, the misbegotten boy whose life is marked by multiple tragedies until the day he becomes villain, victim and celebrity, simultaneously, is a case study in social disaster. If a Barreto is paying attention, there may be hope for Brazilian cinema to move beyond sensationalism. (Ironically, Jose Padilha who made the original Bus 174 followed it with the ultraviolent Elite Squad, a hit at Berlin that wasn’t even at Toronto.)
Waltz with Bashir is something completely different, not only from Barreto’s film but from everything you’ve ever seen. Following Persepolis down the path of drawn animation as an autobiographical medium, filmmaker and confessor Ari Folman uses drawings to animate memories of Israeli participation and complicity in the 1982 massacres at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon. How obvious to use cartoons to represent actual nightmares! But how original: The rotoscoped images are used to excavate the memories of Ari’s fellow soldiers and to break through his own amnesiac trauma to get at the truth of what went on. Cartoons as a trauma tool? Why not? Waltz with Bashir is an entirely new kind of anti-war film that’s particularly well suited to the nightmarish world of war we now inhabit. In stark contrast to the growing play-list of Iraq documentaries, Folman bypasses the inadequacy of realism. He has detected the need for extraordinary measures to get beyond amnesia and denial by utilizing a process (tracking down his old Israeli army cohort), content (what he learns) and style (the cartoon) together. Then, just as the audience is habituated to experiencing an intimacy of horror through the distance of line drawings, he throws a sucker punch that echoes the end of Schindler’s List to opposite effect. (And Waltz has a San Francisco connection, too: it was first commissioned by ITVS International. Thanks, Claire Aguilar.)
If these two films took documentary as a starting point and headed off to different horizons, that’s not to say there’s no place anymore for traditional documentary. Food, Inc. is the latest from Participant Productions, the company that brought us An Inconvenient Truth. Director Robert Kenner’s critique of "industrial" food, produced in factories that treat workers and animals with equal callousness, has pulled together a lot of the investigations and perspectives already written down by such experts as Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, both of whom appear in the film. But there’s nothing like a hidden camera to get the blood boiling, as undocumented workers are mistreated and used as pawns. Statistics gain stature when superimposed onto the giant screen—such as the fact that four megacorporations control over 80 percent of America’s beef supply, or that 70 percent of processed foods now contain genetically modified products. And it discloses that Monsanto’s dominance is guaranteed by its former lawyer Clarence Thomas, who wrote the Supreme Court decision that upheld its right to control the crops of the future through patented genetic modification. The credits rolled to a standing ovation.
Yes, Food, Inc. tells a horror story as compelling as a Brazilian hostage crisis or Lebanese massacre. If it goes down easy, with slick graphics and a clean, high-priced production look, maybe that’s appropriate for an exposé of fast food to hold its own with the best that corporate advertising can throw at us. After all, that’s the kind of image used to sell us on this stuff in the first place. Food, Inc. is so likely to depress profits at multiplex popcorn stands that it risks being exiled to television. There, it would be even more insidious: a powerful Harvest of Shame for the agribusiness of today.
4) It’s a wrap
Lots of other films played, too many to see or even discuss. The Toronto International Film Festival has indeed become huge. And this year, there was also the off-the-screen pleasure of artists like Glenn Ligon mounting ambitious cinema-inspired gallery works. I managed to see some of the little films. Romanian first-time director Adrian Sitaru’s Hooked—co-produced by San Francisco’s own Marie-Pierre Macia and Juliette Lepoutre—placed a cannily fairy-tale frame around what’s usually my least-favorite genre, the prostitute with a heart of gold. And a Chinese film, Knitting, the second feature by woman director Yin Lichuan, meandered too much for my taste, yet continues to haunt me with its yarn of an oddball triangle that faces impossible odds and bad behavior, yet spins its own version of a happy ending.
I couldn’t resist ducking into Peter Sollett’s mainstream makeover. Who’d have expected the director of Raising Victor Vargas to emerge with a spangly-bright teen romance movie set in the improbably gentle demi-monde of New York City underground clubs. Huh? To my surprise, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist is knock-down lovely. And its heart is always, always in the right place: All the outcast nerds-turned-cool kids turn out to be girls who value their friends, queercore guys who want their straight bandmate to get the girl, and finally, a Mean Girl who gets her comeuppance. If Sollett wants to make Michael Cera a star again, and Kat Dennings a star for the first time (let’s hear it for brunettes!), if he is the new Woody Allen cloned with early Richard Linklater, then that’s okay with me.
Warning: unconfirmed musings follow. The central conceit of Nick and Norah is that Norah (Dennings) is the daughter of a legendary music mogul, so she gets into every exclusive club with a wave of the hand. When Norah finally reveals her dad’s name to Cera, it’s Ira Silverberg. Huh? He’s the way-cool literary agent at Sterling Lord who happens to be gay, partnered, and the sperm-daddy for best-pal lesbians who’ve had a daughter and a son. What a queer-friendly reference to discover tossed off in a teen movie! Unless, of course, festival brain fever has made me get it all wrong. Mr. Silverberg, any comment?
Alas, I missed Linklater’s Me and Orson Welles by leaving too soon, but I took time for one real guilty pleasure, the goes-down-easy Coen Brothers’ farce, Burn After Reading.
Now, Tilda Swinton has been to Toronto too many times to count, fronting Teknolust, Thumbsucker, The Deep End, even Orlando, but never before have the paparazzi lined up to shout "Tilda! Tilda!" Very hilarious. Swinton took it all in stride. In fact, the night before her arrival with the Burn After Reading gang, she could be spotted on TV, riffing with Letterman about getting her children out of a tree.
In Toronto, as on Letterman, what really sparked Swinton’s enthusiasm was any discussion of her recent festival, the Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams, in her northern-Scottish village of Nairn. She and Edinburgh’s Mark Cousins staged an old-fashioned festival of passion in a local bingo hall, bringing together neighbors and baked goods to relish the discovery of their favorite classics, with 8-1/2 a particular favorite for its self-referential incorporation of cinema and life. Late one night, looking at an iPhoto album chock full of photos of the Ballerina Ballroom sites, audiences, and yes, baked goods, I couldn’t help but smile. I remembered my own start in the Woods Hole Community Film Society, in a rented community hall next to a drawbridge. And I remember just as well the days when Toronto wasn’t all that different from Swinton’s Nairn fantasia; or, for that matter, when Telluride was a tiny town of cinematic dreams itself.
Good luck, Nairn, I thought to myself. Take a lesson from Food, Inc.: stay small and fresh and local. What’s good for food is good, too, for film festivals.
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