September 11, 2008

Toronto Dispatch. 4.

Michael Sicinski on Che, Il Divo, Wendy and Lucy, 7915 KM and Dernier Maquis. Notes on all these films follow. Updated through 9/14.

Che Does postmodernism have a future? Are we "post" it? That, if you'll permit me, is the general tenor of this post, wherein I briefly consider a few of this year's films which, to varying degrees of success, are dealing with some of the dead ends of what we used to call politics. Postmodernism, in a sense, called into question the very concept of a "political cinema," since the status of the social sphere was as problematized and deconstructed as the idea that artworks could in some way affect that sphere. If, for example, Pontecorvo's The Battle of Algiers represents the apex of a fully confident, activist political cinema, and a film such as Oshima's Death By Hanging demonstrates the potentials of modernist counter-cinema firing on all intellectual cylinders, inquiring into the political realm while undermining cinema's own truth claims, then Von Trier's Dogville could be said to show one of the highest achievements of a postmodern political cinema, one in which the terms of the debate, "cinema" and "politics," can no longer be considered stable, known quantities.

Generally we can characterize the problem in a few chief tenets: a deep anxiety about the ability of images to truthfully represent the world; an incapacity to identify a world outside "textuality," broadly conceived; a disintegration of hierarchies of all kinds; and an abandonment of the concept of truth in favor of rhetoric, argumentation and narrative as guarantors for meaning and legitimacy. These questions have high stakes for the future of political cinema, of course, since they impinge not only on the aesthetic realm - what characterizes a legitimate art object - but the sphere of political thought as well.

So, where are we now? Is this a new phase for either cinema or politics, or do we find ourselves in the death throes of older, worn-out forms? A few of this year's films provide troubling answers. Without a doubt, this year's grand test case for the future viability of any form of large-scale political cinema, if not for outsized American auteur cinema in general, is Steven Soderbergh's Che. Divided into two full-length films, each slightly over two hours, Che could be the ultimate sinkhole for our day, a giant leftist vacuum into which someone's money vanished without a trace. How can this film even exist, and who is its presumed audience? To Soderbergh's credit, there seems to have been little consideration of this question. I would like to be able to weigh in passionately on the debate around Che, but the sad truth is, there's little onscreen to justify passions in either direction. Its champions have claimed that the bold dialectical structure, first showing the rise of Ernesto Guevara (Benicio Del Toro) as a leader in the triumphant Cuban revolution, and then showing the demise of his troops, ideas, and eventually his person in the failed Bolivian adventure, results in a deeply critical, intellectual project. Soderbergh's achievement, some have claimed, is that the valor and worth of Che's ideas, and the full-blooded romance of his early success, is gradually taken away, so that we are left, in a sense, in a post-Guevara world. That is, Soderbergh has created, depending on the interpreter, an internal leftist critique of the degeneration of Guevara's project, or a rise-and-fall lament. (This can even be seen formally in the film, since the first half, The Argentine, is in widescreen, and the tragic second half, Guerrilla, reduces aspect to near-televisual claustrophobia.)

Che On the other side of the aisle are those who find the film a travesty, since it allegedly drains Che of all romance, all power, presenting his travails in a flat, declarative, perversely anti-dramatic mode. In fact both camps have some points to make, and that's because in the end Che is a giant muddle, a perfectly watchable docudrama that is in fact flat and declarative, and does adhere to the rise and fall trajectory, but does so with such even inflection as to produce very little beyond history-buff engagement. There seems to be some question as to the relative accessibility of this film. Personally, I found that I could hook into it without caring, partly since I know the material quite well, but Soderbergh's style and approach is anti-everything. No discernible personality, no clear take on the subject, no avoidance or deployment of Hollywood technique. For a time, the film's lack of distribution (a matter now resolved, apparently) resulted in talk that Che would become an HBO miniseries, and as I watched I found the film entirely suited to that format, alongside John Adams or another such plodding, anonymous effort. Even when Soderbergh deliberately breaks the glass surface for a joke, like Guevara's attendance at a New York cocktail party, or a strange genre riff like the final, bizarrely B-Western shootout in a Bolivian village, these moments stick out as glitches in the system rather than thought-provoking formal strategies. There is more genuine political outrage (to say nothing of revolutionary joy) in the throwaway dice-factory uprising scenes in Ocean's 13 than in all 260 minutes of Soderbergh's Che Guevara film. And so, as a piece of political cinema for our age, I find Che an "interesting failure" only in theory, not in terms of the results. It isn't fascist, as one major critic has claimed. Fascism requires clear aims, marching orders. Che leaves its viewer in a miasma of deadening procedure. It is not even an apolitical film about Che, which would certainly say a great deal about our times. It obviously believes in what it's trying to do, but cannot convey that ideological conviction in any meaningful way. Ultimately, Che is hermetic, even autistic.

Il Divo To my mind, the new film by Italy's Paolo Sorrentino is a far more interesting failure. Il Divo is a portrait of titanic Italian politician Giulio Andreotti, although the film strives to be a portrait in negative space. Not only does Sorrentino avoid depicting Andreotti uttering certain of his infamous quips, such as "Power wears out those who don't have it" or his reply, "Of which?," when told that the government was investigating the Mafia and that as its representative he'd need to speak to the press. Such restraint is admirable, and certainly nothing we'd expect from Sorrentino based on his previous work. (I confess, I've only been able to watch The Family Friend and The Consequences of Love in small bursts. I find Sorrentino's slam-bang, dipsy-doodle, Oliver Stone-cum-Coens approach in these films to be migraine-inducing, as well as just plain hideous.) But more to the point, Sorrentino depicts Andreotti as a kind of absent center around which political mega-power practically organized itself, as if, in the man's own words, it were the Will of God. This is the joke, of course. There's nothing holy writ about Andreotti's rise, which is the result of manifold social forces and key players, all of whom Sorrentino thrusts onto the screen in rapid succession, as if to simultaneously demystify the halls of power - it's just a bunch of thugs and Mafiosi - and boggle our minds all at once.

Il Divo Part of the problem, though, is that Sorrentino wants to play this for black comedy and he frequently overplays his hand. Virtually no mention of Il Divo fails to cite Toni Servillo's passive, awkwardly in-turned performance as Andreotti, and while it is the crux of the film's rhetorical operations base, I submit that it ultimately doesn't work. Servillo's Divo becomes a kind of cartoon, with his exaggerated, stooped gait and hands clasped in tight priestly fashion as he waddles through the halls of high government. (Yes, I've seen Andreotti, and he's not that much like Droopy the Dog.) If we place Il Divo in its proper lineage of recent valiant but inadequate cinematic stabs at the second half of the Italian century, Il Divo holds its own alongside Nanni Moretti's The Caiman, a film which couldn't even bear to countenance Berlusconi in the end, and the best of the lot, Marco Bellocchio's Good Morning, Night, which cast Andreotti's frenemy Aldo Moro as a sacrificial lamb before forces well beyond his comprehension. Il Divo has a smart agenda. It designates Andreotti as a kind of functional non-person, continually framing him as though he were part of the vaulted ceilings of the Parliament building, both pillar and shadow. But Sorrentino, a true postmodernist, can only face the banality of bureaucratic evil (or, if you prefer, the evil of bureaucratic banality) with ludic bemusement. (The film ends, tellingly, with that Euro-anthem of barely articulated emotional ambivalence, Trio's "Da Da Da.") Moretti and Bellocchio are leftists largely impotent before history, but they still insist that it bears the gravity of a tragedy. Sorrentino, meanwhile, sees only farce.

One major contrast between so-called modernist and postmodernist political strategies, both in terms of artistic representation and more traditional forms of direct action, has been in the different ways that each discourse locates power. While modern forms usually look to the nation-state or to some form of direct revolt against it, postmodern strategies have been described (by theorists such as Michel de Certeau, Henri Lefebvre and Guy Debord) as "tactics," a set of smaller, more human-scaled gestures that may actually prove to be a more effective way of shifting power relations in the long run. Whether or not this is god political science, this year's TIFF seems to demonstrate that it makes for better filmmaking. While the Che Guevara and Giulio Andreotti films are ambitious but deeply flawed, other films on display show far more modest goals and achieve them.

Wendy and Lucy One such film is Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy, a poetic realist portrait of a young drifter (Michelle Williams, in what I suspect will be an Oscar-nominated performance) and her dog, breaking down in a small Oregon town en route to some seasonal fishery work in Alaska. (By the looks of her clothes and bank account, I doubt Wendy Carroll is the type of person Gov Palin wanted wandering into her great state anyhow.) A film of tiny moments and instantaneous, unplanned decisions that reverberate in crushing ways, Wendy and Lucy is the rare American film focusing on a no-income female itinerant. Although far more stylistically subdued that the nerve-fried films of Lodge Kerrigan, Reichardt's work shares with Kerrigan's a penetrating concern with marginal individuals who are slipping through the cracks and going down for the count right before our eyes. Wendy shoplifts, gets nabbed by a self-righteous young store employee (John Robinson), is booked and held, and loses her dog as a result. A few times Reichardt overplays her hand somewhat. (When store clerk Andy announces, "If you can't afford dog food, you shouldn't have a dog," or when Larry Fessenden turns up to deliver a menacing homeless-guy soliloquy, the film loses its sure footing.) But Reichardt's careful, sensitive work with Williams results in a gut-level, affective politics. The painful conclusion hurts because of its social inevitability, and because Wendy and Lucy has made us care about the human being whose basic dignity is being erased for no reason other than a $2,000 shortfall.

Another very impressive Toronto film, and a quite different model for "small" politics, is Nikolaus Geyrhalter's documentary 7915 KM. Although it might seem unfair to group a documentary alongside fiction films in terms of possible models for political cinema, Geyrhalter's film is a special case. Unlike many of today's documentaries (and, by the looks of things, unlike much of this year's Real to Reel slate), Geyrhalter is as deeply concerned with cinematic aesthetics as he is with his factual subject matter. In fact, 7915 KM demonstrates the degree to which form and content must be considered inextricably linked for any advanced notion of documentary to succeed. The film follows the path of the Dakar Rally, a yearly off-road race down the northwest coast of Africa. Geyrhalter's crew visited towns and villages along the path of the race after the racers had already been through, usually finding that the crazy Europeans and their fast cars had torn up local roads, acted disrespectfully to the local citizens (in one case, even to a young, somewhat Euro-identified Senegalese woman who participated in the race security crew), and that the whole event cuts an oblivious swath through some of the most inhospitable, and most politically contested and war-torn sections of the region. But beyond this, Geyrhalter takes this somewhat random linear organization as an opportunity for an open, patient form of cinematic listening. Much of the film consists of strikingly composed interviews in which local citizens hold forth on matters of concern, from their own personal work histories, to their religious practices, to their views on Europe. "How rich must the Whites be that they can just drive around all day," one man in Mali observes.

7915 KM But what makes 7915 KM remarkable - easily one of the three or four best features I've seen in the festival - is its fragmentary, cumulative approach to contemporary geopolitics. It is a ground-level project that also attempts to engage with its African subjects with a renewed, self-critical humanism. The film doesn't gaze at "the Other," nor does it try to make its subjects appear "just like us," nor does it throw up its hands and abjure the work of cross-cultural understanding altogether. Instead, Geyrhalter uses his determinedly Western framework - the cinematic apparatus, a highly stylized aesthetic approach, the deep space of the Renaissance perspective - to demonstrate distance from his subjects, but a meeting in difference, a mutual listening and engagement. Had Geyrhalter simply turned on a camcorder and walked around, all the same old unconscious habits, for filmmaker and spectator alike, would most likely come rushing to the fore. Instead, 7915 KM insists on its status as a Western construction, but one that provides a small subset of Africans with a megaphone, to say nothing of a place inside a project of handsome polyethnic portraiture. Geyrhalter's globalist approach owes much to the late Johan van der Keuken, and perhaps as well to certain works by Harun Farocki. This is especially evident in the film's concluding moments, when Geyrhalter lowers the boom. After detailing the wild exploits of wealthy Europeans and Americans traipsing all over the Sahara at will, we see a group of Senegalese refugees trying to make it to Europe by boat. They are intercepted by a European Coast Guard vessel, because not just anyone can move freely about the world.

Finally, a few words about a feature that has been growing in stature in my mind ever since I saw it on the first day of the festival. It's one of those small films that too often gets lost in the shuffle, and I hope that others get the chance to see it, since I think it not only deserves a wider audience but has the potential to kick off a whole new chapter in our ongoing debates about the futures of political cinema. The film is Dernier Maquis, by a second-time director and actor from Algeria named Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche. The film is about a trucking and shipping yard in a banlieue of Paris, where virtually all of the employees are Arab or African Muslims, to the extent that one non-Muslim employee, Titi (Christian Milia-Darmezin) not only converts, but performs a bathroom self-circumcision. Maquis is largely comic (one gag involves Titi trying to get workmen's comp for the self-snip) and episodic in structure, but eventually a dominant throughline emerges. The yard boss, an Arab called "Mao" (Ameur-Zaïmeche) swindles his employees, fails to pay them overtime, but placates them by building a makeshift mosque in an abandoned hotel lobby behind the site.

Dernier Maquis Part of what is hard to grasp about Dernier Maquis, at least at first, is that it is a deeply unfashionable political film. It is optimistic, and takes a rather hardline Marxist approach. First of all, the film's visual style is dominated by searing, Soviet / Chinese red to an almost ludicrous degree. The yard is filled with stacks upon stacks of empty pallets, all painted bright red, like some mobile, homemade minimalist sculptural installation. The workers even spend time repainting the pallets. And within these permeable walls, a specter is haunting these men, and it isn't Muhammad. In no uncertain terms, religion is the opiate of the workers in this scenario, but we're not necessarily prepared to see it, because in this case, the opiate Ameur-Zaïmeche decries is Islam. (Mao even installs his mealy-mouthed right-hand man as the imam.) What's more, when Mao downsizes the mechanics because the auto shop is costing him too much money, we see these three men barricade themselves inside the yard, calling on others to strike. Most do not, but by the end of the film, we see that the men have humiliated Mao, and are using the forklifts to move the iconic red pallets into position as a bulwark. In short, Dernier Maquis is a return to an unreconstructed, unapologetic pre-postmodernist Socialism in cinema. The crazy thing is, it's been so long that I barely even recognized what I was seeing. Ironically, from a political perspective, the festival began with a great promise that it's been struggling to recapture ever since.

- Michael Sicinski

More on Che:

  • "As an aggrandized history lesson, a primer in revolutionary philosophy, and a study of the effect of varying environments on guerilla tactics and strategies, these four hours of film sweep along engagingly and - in my estimation - quite brilliantly," writes Michael Guillén. "Their importance should be a given; though I don't anticipate Americans will be so generous. The revolution may never truly be televised; but, Soderbergh has done an admirable job of rendering it cinematically."

  • "I found Che fascinating," writes Noel Murray, "but as with The Good German, Bubble, Solaris and several other recent Soderbergh films, I also found myself wondering frequently whether it needed to be made. The visceral, gut-level connection just wasn't there for me, and without it, the string of wilderness shoot-outs became something of a chore. A chore worth performing, but a chore nonetheless."

  • Also at the AV Club, Scott Tobias: "Che is more compelling in theory than as an actual moviegoing experience: The action is disjointed, confusing, and never for a moment dramatized, and the second half, in particular, literally goes nowhere."

  • "What's impressive about Che has little to do with the running time, because Soderbergh himself doesn't feel the pressure of it," writes Eric Kohn at the Jaman Blog. "The film moves at a brisk pace, rarely drags and never gets too preachy, but the filmmaker doesn't try to make an epic out of it. Instead, we feel the strain of time as a device that evokes the duration of Che Guevara's influence during his lifetime, much like David Fincher used the device to evoke the reign of terror caused by a serial killer in Zodiac."

  • Variety's Anne Thompson reports on why Che's North American rights have gone to IFC Films rather than 2929 Entertainment's Magnolia Pictures.

  • Earlier: Amy Taubin in Film Comment and reviews from Cannes.

Il Divo: Reviews from Cannes.

Wendy and Lucy Wendy and Lucy:

  • "Presenting her film at the AMC theater in Toronto, Reichardt explained that she and coscreenwriter Jonathan Raymond began working on the story after listening to the conservative backlash and 'contempt for poverty' that immediately followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005," notes the Chicago Reader's JR Jones. "Some commentators, she recalled, couldn't fathom the idea that you can't escape a storm zone if you're too poor to own a car. In her movie, Wendy has no safety net whatsoever - no job, no insurance, no assets except for her beater. She's one mishap away from falling through the cracks forever, and in its haunting finale, Wendy and Lucy recalls no less than Mervyn LeRoy's classic Depression-era drama I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932)."

  • A "small gem," Chris Stults of the Wexner Center assures us.

  • Earlier: Reviews from Cannes.

7915 KM: "Geyrhalter's film suffers from the same problem that plagued his previous documentary, Our Daily Bread - while the filmmaker's widescreen tableaux are sometimes visually poignant, Geyrhalter's documentary imagination is lacking," writes Daniel Kasman in the Auteurs' Notebook.

Dernier Maquis: Reviews from Cannes.

Update, 9/13: Jim Emerson on Che: "I can't think of another American film quite like this in its scope, ambition, or detailed, nuanced portrayal of politics in action - though parts triggered memories of Gillo Pontecorvo's Battle of Algiers and a few films by Bernardo Bertolucci.... Despite its length, Soderberg's opus is consistently engrossing, not some kind of endurance test.... I thought once again of that memorable line of Pauline Kael's, from her review of Bertolucci's 1900: It makes most other movies 'look like something you hold up on the end of a toothpick.'"

Update, 9/14: "Despite the rigorous, structuralist approach Soderbergh employs to sidestep the incense-burning pitfalls of the standard Hollywood biopic," writes Fernando F Croce for Slant, "and despite many stylistic marvels and Benicio del Toro's drugged-tiger performance, this is a work of intelligent fastidiousness rather than vivid inspiration. No other biopic would dare overlay El Comandante's Tolstoy quotes on a brutal skirmish, but who knew such bold experimentation could be so... academic?"

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Posted by dwhudson at September 11, 2008 2:36 AM