September 7, 2008

Toronto Dispatch. 2.

We last heard from Michael Sicinski a few days ago, when he previewed the Wavelengths program. Now the festival's off and running - and so is he.

Toronto 08 This brief dispatch comes after three complete days of the Toronto International Film Festival, where some, rather prematurely I think, are already grumbling that 2008 is an off year for TIFF, if not world cinema in general. Granted, at this point there's quite a lot riding on Toronto, since the results are already in from Berlin (disastrous), Cannes (feh), and most recently, Venice (not quite as bad as Berlin, but just about). There's also a lot of carping about which films have been excluded from this or that festival line-up, Toronto's included. I don't mean to make myself sound like a mere observer to this bitching and moaning, and I'll have a lot more to say about it after Toronto is over. But given the fact that the other festivals have bellyflopped, one gets the sense that the press corps is sniffing around for a hidden gem. Save us, TIFF!

So far, my sampling of the films by younger directors has been, to put it mildly, a mixed bag. The worst film I've seen in a walk, Jagor Gardev's Zift [site], is the sort of anti-art film sure to make a certain stripe of North American straight-to-video distributor whip out its checkbook, but it has no place in a film festival predicated on anything resembling good taste. Think Guy Ritchie-style laddishness with Ostalgia, a kind of post-Communist hangover film laden with unreconstructed misogyny. A number of other films, actually have had me replaying that Beastie Boys line in my head: "This disrespectin' women has got to be through." Films which are presumably exploring the interior worlds of characters mired in either typical adolescent-boy urges or woman-hating midlife crisis bullshit are proving to be incapable of staking out any directorial or writerly distance from their protagonists or subject matter.

Acne Sometimes you hear certain critics complain that this or that filmmaker isn't "generous with [his/her] characters." Well, be careful what you wish for! Federico Veiroj's Acné is an unfunny Uruguayan-Jewish comedy about Bregman the insensitive sensitive rich kid whose parents are divorcing, who borrows money to treat his friends at the brothel, and thinks about going to a kibbutz because "Israel's got tits." Veiroj is so enamored with the Bregman character (he was also the focus of his debut short, As Follows) and the young actor who plays him, Alejandro Tocar, that he will let the film stand or fall on cutesy American Pie charm and smarm. (Sample gag: guys sullenly wait for their turn at the whorehouse, like they're at the dentist. Ah, it's so hard out there for a pimple.)

Kristian Levring's Fear Me Not operates in a completely different register but arrives at very similar conclusions. No Dogme 95 here, it's all chilly pseudo-Haneke as Mikael (Ulrich Thomsen) a bureaucrat puttering around the house after taking a rest leave, begins a clinical trial of an anti-depressant. There are odd side effects, and the trial is cancelled, but Mikael surreptitiously keeps taking the pills. Soon he's standing up to his quite lovely but allegedly ball-busting architect wife (Paprika Steen, stranded here) and spooking their daughter (Emma Sehested Høeg). A crypto-remake of Nicholas Ray's Bigger Than Life but without the wit or the compassion, this film purports to have Mikael's sexist bully in its crosshairs but fundamentally ends up corroborating his viewpoint. Fear Me Not? Oh, no. Be afraid...

Now onto the good stuff.

Jerichow The most pleasant surprise thus far has been Jerichow, the latest film from Germany's Christian Petzold. While word out of Venice was quite strong on this one - in fact, it has generally been cited as one of about four films in the Competition lineup that had any real business being there - I still wasn't prepared for the phenomenal leap forward that this new film represents in Petzold's filmmaking. I should point out that I've been a bit of a skeptic regarding Petzold. While I have appreciated his two previous films, Ghosts and Yella, for their intellectual agenda and Petzold's rigorous style, particularly his ability to transform natural landscapes in the former East into vacuum-sealed, surrealistic non-spaces, I also found those earlier films rather obvious in their aims. By contrast, Jerichow finds the director now capable of fully occupying his character's emotional worlds while also, when necessary, maintaining a critical distance. This distance is no longer clinical; we're no longer watching specimens under glass.

As some reviews have already noted, Jerichow is in essence a reworking of a specific film noir classic, one that I will refrain from naming to avoid needless spoilers. (You can find the information elsewhere quite easily.) We have a love triangle between Thomas (Benno Fürmann), a petty thief looking to start over, Ali (Hilmi Sözer), a wealthy Turkish immigrant Thomas meets by chance, and Laura (Nina Hoss), Ali's attractive German wife. Ali operates a chain of snack bars but has his driver's license revoked due to a DUI, and hires Thomas as a driver. Soon they become friends, but the attraction between Thomas and Laura, natürlich, is instantaneous. As with Yella, but to far greater visceral impact, Petzold plays with semi-misdirection. That is, it's never clear that either he or the film is actively trying to deceive you in the manner of classic Hollywood plots. Rather, Jerichow layers the typical structure of the noir onto the seething, unspoken resentments created by years of German racism against immigrant Turks. This could have been clunky and artificial but, due in large part to Sözer's heartbreaking performance as Ali, Petzold is able to turn our sympathies and our entire history of spectatorial identification inside out. Certain anomalies that may look like flaws at first, like some shockingly florid trysts and especially some highly wooden acting by Hoss and Fürmann, gradually reveal themselves to be integral weapons in Jerichow's emotional and political arsenal. The result is a film that picks up the Sirkian project from Fassbinder in a way that seems, for the first time, completely logical, as though we've finally found the heir apparent. In any case, I doubt I'll see a finer film this year than Jerichow.

Another very pleasant surprise, and certainly sure to be a festival highlight for me, was Lisandro Alonso's Liverpool. As with Petzold, Alonso is a major figure in world cinema who has come to prominence in the past decade, and as with Petzold, I've never been as fully convinced regarding Alonso's project as many of my peers. I've admired aspects of La libertad and to a much greater extent Los Muertos, but it seemed to me that the Argentinean director's style was often at odds with itself. A certain austerity and avant-garde sense of control was either undone by, or unsuited for, films that had a Romantic streak and an uncontainable primeval force. With Liverpool, Alonso has achieved a new confidence and a sense of purpose that has lost none of its mystery despite having become as clear as crystal.

Liverpool

At the center of Liverpool is Farrel (Juan Fernandez), a shipworker and a drunk who appears to have left his frozen hometown and his family behind many years ago. In the opening scenes, Alonso shows us something rather new in his world - a worker in the confines of a world almost completely manmade. True, we see the ocean rushing by, but the presence of Farrel in his steel bunk or working the boiler room provides a claustrophobic and also a comforting, cradling new environment for an Alonso protagonist. Compositions can settle around the figure without undue agitation, and the ship's hull allows for totally new qualities of light that have previously been absent in Alonso's work, such as the collision of fluorescent and incandescent bulbs at dusk as Farrel offboards the ship to begin the journey home. The obviousness of Alonso's structure here, from an enclosed metallic world into an open, snowy landscape, takes nothing away from the visual and spatial experience that Liverpool creates within this structure, and in fact, as with many avant-garde projects, Alonso's benefits greatly from the imposition of this objective shape.

Alonso's previous films have all featured non-professional actors, and while many of the people who populate Farrel's old village are clearly played by non-pros, I am not at all certain about Juan Fernandez. His bearing throughout the film as Farrel is also something that strikes me as radically new in Alonso's cinema. He is more expressive of interior psychology, of the toll the years of guilt have taken. The film itself has the objective movement of a spatial rearrangement, from seascape to rough, unkempt landscape, but Farrel's downbeat quest provides something additional, a level of narrativity that the landscape itself seems to reject. Whether or not Fernandez is a professional actor, his comportment and even his face and body represent a certain phenotype of the art-cinema male. He looks like Jean-Pierre Leaud and Vincent Gallo. As he finally arrives home, Farrel discovers that - corny, I know - "you can't go home again," but more than this, that there is a rhythm of life in the village that is more in keeping with the rest of Alonso's cinema than Farrel or the nautical world he came from. So, one of the things that is most fascinating about Liverpool is that it is a subtle self-examination on Alonso's part, a dialectical rethinking of his own project. Many have praised Liverpool for being a more conventional film than La libertad or Los Muertos, but this misses the point a bit. Farrel, as the agent of that conventional narrative thrust, is ultimately outcast. He isn't just a drunk or a bad father; he also brings with him a certain self-consciousness and artifice that, in the best of circumstances, we call art, and in the worst of times there's often no space for the life observed rather than lived. But as the final shot indicates, we, the characters, and Alonso have been changed for having undergone this quest. Liverpool is certainly a far more difficult film than Jerichow, and in the current unfavorable distribution climate, it'll be a tough sell. But I sincerely hope more viewers get the chance to see it. It is one of the year's best films, and ought to cement Alonso's place in world cinema's top echelon.

Dorsky @ Views The Wavelengths section premiered two new works by Nathaniel Dorsky, Winter and Sarabande, which will fortunately screen again in October as part of Views from the Avant-Garde. While all of Dorsky's work demands and rewards repeat viewings, these new films took me somewhat by surprise since they reflect a subtle shift in Dorsky's imagemaking, one for which I wasn't quite prepared. The films have taken their time seeping into my mind and I am starting to gain a toehold with them, I think. But these comments should be taken as highly preliminary and speculative, if not outright scattershot. One of the hallmarks of Dorsky's filmmaking in the phase that began with Triste and, to some extent, may have ended with the magnificent Song and Solitude, has been a meticulous montage style that actively worked against ideational associations or, in many cases, obviously formal or abstract ones. Instead, each shot in a Dorsky film always seemed determined to retain its individuality and absolute presence on the screen. It wasn't there to move you ahead or refer you back to an "elsewhere" in the film, but to co-exist as a unique intensity of light, color and shadow. Within this overall scheme, of course, patterns and themes emerged, and there was always a discernible logic as to why any given series of individual shots comprised a single film. Recalling Arthur Peleshian's theory of "distance montage," Dorsky's editing would keep obvious correspondences apart while yielding a broad, total impression that unmistakable expanded in the consciousness of the attentive viewer. Active intuition, rather than logical assemblage, was the primary spectatorial faculty these films requested.

Sarabande

Winter and Sarabande function somewhat differently. Although this is a crass simplification of the two films, it is nonetheless fair to say that Winter is a study of the bisection of the frame by diagonals, while Sarabande takes the previous film's color palette into a realm of heightened movement, specifically focusing on twisting and torquing forms as they reflect and diffract light. Within avant-garde film production, centering one's film on such abstract forms as perceived in the world is a grand tradition, but it's one that up to now Dorsky seemed to have actively abjured. Certain shot combinations within Winter recall the finest films of Ernie Gehr, which of course is some of the highest praise I can dole out. I do not think that these new films are fixated on abstract structure. Like Gehr's films, they are too alive, too attentive to what's happening in the world around them. But it does seem that Dorsky is perhaps no longer working so assiduously to avoid the perception of structures, or suppress their emergence. Likewise, there are singularly stunning reds and greens, or layered multiple reflections, but more than in any of Dorsky's previous works there are not singular standout shots in Winter and Sarabande. Rather, they function as all-over compositions with a relatively stable timbre and pitch. This was an instance when Dorsky's admiration for Ozu and Bresson, two modernists dedicated to construction from elements of equal weight, struck me as important for accessing his own work.

Sarabande

Winter is, as you might expect, a film largely characterized by blues and grays; however, from the opening shot Dorsky shows us an aspect of the film's treatment of light that will recur at frequent but irregular intervals. Against black shadows on pavement, a short diagonal shaft of hot sunlight draws and undraws itself on the right hand side of the frame, presumably as an unseen door opens and closes. Winter is frequently about intensities of light characterized by their fragility or near-disappearance. Although like all of Dorsky's work, the film is firmly material and unshackled by needless metaphor, the jagged diagonals did strike me as somehow apposite as an objective correlative to the snowless San Francisco winters, a sharp, biting cold you cannot really see. This is only my interpretation, of course. But reducing Dorsky's films to narratives and symbols is always to miss the point and to undercut their power. On the other hand, as is often the case with Dorsky's work, there is a bone-dry wit at work. One shot in Winter features a poodle cocking its head, another variation on the diagonal but one with concrete resonance. And at the conclusion of both films, Dorsky provides a radical departure from the rhythms and forms to which everything up to that point had been getting you accustomed. In Sarabande a series of sunlit blossoms begins vibrating, the stillness of the camerawork suddenly shattered. At the conclusion of Winter, the varied images in depth give way to a compact montage sequence featuring beads of rain on a black car hood, glinting in the sun. The multiple views and angles of this flat field, bedecked with jewels of light, was gorgeous and immediately called to mind the paintings of Ross Bleckner. Dorsky follows this, by the way, with a flattened, perpendicular shot of windows and a wall, about the least diagonal thing one could photograph. There's not only a clear sense of play at work here, but (please pardon the expression) an "exit strategy," the indication that Dorsky has taken us somewhere and is easing us back into a more neutral visual world.

In my next dispatch, I'll have something to say about Hirokazu Kore-eda's new film, Still Walking, another pleasant surprise, although one of a slightly lesser order. In the meantime, it is a film I definitely recommend. Cannes' rejection of it has less to do with quality than the fact that Kore-eda committed a cardinal sin against that festival's ground rules. He made a comedy.

- Michael Sicinski


(Forgive me for stealing a couple of images, Danny.)



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Posted by dwhudson at September 7, 2008 4:19 PM

Comments

of Lisandro Alonso's first three non-shorts, for me by far the best is 'Fantasma'

Posted by: Neil Young at September 7, 2008 4:35 PM

I would agree about some of the unfortunate misogyny appearing in ZIFT (carry over from the novel) but Gardev still displays way too much talent to declare the film a write-off.

Posted by: grumpyoldfilmdork at September 7, 2008 8:29 PM

I'm attempting to blog about TIFF as well (I need to write faster!). Favourites so far are "Still Walking", Quebec's "C'est Pas Moi, Je Le Jure" (which isn't strictly a comedy, but has the funniest sequence I've seen all year) and "Country Wedding" (perhaps the second funniest thing I've seen - brillant ensemble improv from Iceland).

Maybe I'm just lucky with my picks so far, but I'm 13 for 13 (well, maybe 12.5 for 13 - The Paranoids was take it or leave it for me).

Posted by: Bob Turnbull at September 7, 2008 10:03 PM

Hey, Neil, you wanna rumble? Fantasma is his worst, I think, a silly and overextended joke that eventually feels self-serving. I didn't mention it for a reason. To each his own. But hey, how 'bout that Petzold?

GrumpyOFD, I suppose Gardev has talent. He could blossom. But for me it was impossible to separate that from what he chose to expend that capability on. Zift is just so juvenile, and when we get passages like Gardev cross-cutting between the lead couple having sex and a praying mantis eating her mate, it's impossible for me to take his ideas or his technique seriously.

Posted by: msic at September 8, 2008 5:10 AM

"One gets the sense that the press corps is sniffing around for a hidden gem."

Enter Ryan Fleck's Sugar.

Posted by: papermoon at September 8, 2008 6:56 AM

Whoa. The tone of this roundup is not very pleasant. ho hum. Is there another dispatch in the room?

Posted by: Hugo at September 8, 2008 8:25 AM

Not pleasant?

Huh?

Total word count: 2664
Words on films I disliked: 560
Words on films I really liked a lot: 2104
Percentage breakdown: 21% negative / 79% positive
Number of uses of the word "pleasant": 3

But anyhow, it's cool if you don't cotton to my style. D'Arcy's here too, so I'm not the only game in town by any means.

Posted by: msic at September 8, 2008 1:18 PM

p.s.: Perhaps I should clarify, re: my comments-box tone, that Neil and I are friends.

Posted by: msic at September 8, 2008 1:20 PM

I'm intrigued by "Jerichow", which I had a chance to catch in Toronto, but passed up on account of my feeling that Petzold's last film, "Yella" was a frosty, self-indulgent mess.

Will you be catching Darren Aronofsky's newly Venice-minted "The Wrestler"? Because, pleasant or not pleasant, it would be nice if somebody confirmed that it really is a studiously conventional, tremendously predictable and perfectly middlebrow piece of work -- and you might be just the person for the job, Mr. Sicinski! Seriously, are people really call this a masterpiece?

Posted by: Scott at September 8, 2008 11:16 PM

Scott, re: The Wrestler, it seems that Richard Corliss agrees with you:

http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1839310,00.html

Posted by: David Hudson at September 9, 2008 12:14 AM

Michael, I sincerely appreciate the clarity you bring to your observations of Lisandro Alonso's Liverpool, which was one of my favorites at TIFF08. Like yourself, I was struck by the film's spatiality. I spoke with Lisandro while in Toronto and he confirmed definitely that Juan Fernandez was a non-actor. In real life he's a caterpillar operator who wanted nothing to do with Alonso when first approached; but, as you might know, Alonso has a slow, methodical way of ingratiating himself to locals so that they eventually come to trust him and warm up to participation in his filmic projects. Thank yoiu for your fine writing.

Posted by: Maya at September 15, 2008 10:49 AM