TIFF 2012. Correspondences #8

Our correspondant's last report from TIFF discusses new Oliveira, work from a HK genre master, _Leviathan_, and more.
Daniel Kasman

Dear Fern,

I'm glad you caught Oliveira's Gebo and the Shadow too, and inadvertently placed it next to To the Wonder. I felt like those were inverse films of each other: one constantly floating, the other firmly rooted; one whose spoken words are all offscreen, the other who's words are all stringently, theatrically on camera; the Malick repeating abstractions on light and love, the Oliveira on loss and misery. And each resolutely, repetitiously dedicated to these methods of presentation, fluid, searching philosophy in flitting figures vs. the concrete weight of bodies, age, poverty. Gebo, based on a play by Raul Brandão,saves its magic for outside of its single setting house, a glimpse of a Virgin Mary on a street corner, the flat, computer generated harbor you mention that opens the film, hands coming out of the shadows to grasp at the audience like the gunfighter who ends Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery. Is this world outside the sorrow of the household any less phantasmagoric, full of mystery and potential but also, perhaps, nothing at all, than Malick's twirling, handheld reveries? Except Oliveira evokes this in parsimonious doses which contrast so forcefully with his long takes of old actors repeating their tasks, lamenting their lives, and attempting to cover up its true sadness in the “illusion” of lying about the true sinfulness of the family's prodigal son. And of course this illusion is cinema itself, sustaining these living, breathing, moving, talking persons in the world.

Such serene, pared formalism played well after the cacophony of Leviathan, a true maelstrom of sound and vision taking the form of an experimental documentary that no doubt fails to document and instead purely invents a state of experiential and perceptual existence on the edge of incoherence, chaos, and death. This is a remarkable move for co-directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, whose previous work, separately directed with other co-directors, was Sweetgrass and Foreign Parts, respectively, which were more in tune with the “ethnography” part of the name of their Harvard lab. Leviathan is the “sensory” part: we barely “learn” how a fishing boat operates, what the men do and how they feel, the layout of the ship, the routines, the kinds of work. The didactic function of this (supposed) documentary are entirely sublimated to the—to take a phrase coined by Adam Nayman—demonic possession of small digital cameras on board the boat.

The narrative effect is of perceptual near-omniscience of the narration: long take sequences appear nearly “first person”, as if the camera were the eyes of a sailor, their hands reaching into the frame to perform tasks; but others can fly seeming unrooted and unguided from the ship, plunging under water only to emerge (and rotate!) around, revealing first the abstract slipstream of passing currents, then the edge between the sky and the water, then the sky itself, dense with alien shapes later revealed to be seagulls stalking the ship. Some viewpoints seem physically impossible, and while the editing between sequences, the structure or order of the work often remained vague to me, the possibility of the film's viewpoint to so radically shift in style and focalization as to imply a kind of totally immersive space that moves beyond three dimensions and is navigable like surveillance channels: now we're a fish, now we're a sailor, now we're a television screen, now we're a bird, now we're dead fish, now we're god-knows-what, moving and seeing as no living creature does.

A few of the shots do not seem to function within this resolutely unmotivated flow: the men of the ship appear for the longest time as mere slickers in the dark, and a shared cigarette between these besieged, wet, hooded toilers spontaneously confirms a truism of Howard Hawks films; but later we see these men full-faced in clear images, and like a steady, highly lucid shot taken from a crane vantage point, these sequences lay out the human participants and the ship's true shape in ways antithetical to the rest of the film's pursuit of destroying space, obliterating time, taking away from activities their purpose or results, and instead conceiving the ship, the fishermen, the fish, the fishing, the sea as a world perpetually twirling on the edge of an abyss.

Hong Kong director Cheang Soi also sees existence as a struggle, and his finest films in the past—including the masterpieces Love Battlefield and Dog Bite Dog—have also plunged into the scabrous energy and tenacity of people living on the edge. Yet his subject, unlike Leviathan, is indeed humans. Motorway is his second film produced by Johnnie To under the Milkyway logo, and improves on his first, Accident, by retaining its smoothy slick veneer and removal from the gutters of grimy Hong Kong streets (where much of Cheang's previous movies lived and fought) at the same time finding a resolutely physical and tactile expression of drive and perseverance within this style.

Like much of Cheang's work, Motorway is a struggle between the local Hong Kongers and Mainland invaders; in this case, two cops on traffic duty with a focus on catching highway racecars vs. a Chinese getaway driver breaking a convicted heistman out of jail, shuttling him to his next job and then to freedom for them both out of Hong Kong. The film literally is a race between the Hong Kong forces of good—Shawn Yue as the speed-freak younger cop, the magisterial Anthony Wong as his seasoned elder, about to retire—and the Mainland criminals, Guo Xiaodong as the professional driver and Li Haitao as his diamond-craving comrade. The means of expression and action between the two groups are a series of thrillingly physical car chases unaided by computer imagery that fully express senses of weight, speed, maneuvers and wuxia-like expert combative trickery. At the same time, this material reality is abstracted by the constant chiaroscuro images of the drivers' faces—the film is as much a study of what cars can do as it is what racers look like while coolly performing the most audacious actions.

Shot in surprisingly tight 1.66, the compositions are clean and blocked beautifully—this is definitely Milkyway Cheang and not the street-crawling director of earlier days. Which is why cars are a good analogy for his move in his productions and their focus: the streets of Hong Kong are as alien as they've always been in his cinema, but here they are nests of intertwined alleys and a maze of back-mountain roads, not the garbage strewn hovels that his often-primitive protagonists previously had to crawl and brawl through to survive. Motorway's Hong Kong is a nighttime playground for these cars, pulling elaborate tricks through pealing tire smoke, mechanical extensions of their drivers' relationship to reality. This struggle to survival is now comfortably sitting in a car seat; but the feeling is still there, an intangible existential anguish for Shawn Yue, and a physical need to escape and survive for the two Chinese. As always with Cheang, audience allegiances are challenged: we feel for the conventionally bantering Yue and Wong combination, but quickly grow to respect the stoic, brotherly professionalism of the criminals. (This echoes Love Battlefield's dynamic that basically replaces our sympathy for the lead Hong Kong couple with empathy for the even cooler, harder working and more stalwart Mainland lovers.) The genre purity is invigorating to behold; there is almost no nonsense in this film, even its tacked on happy ending reminds one of all the lives lost in the film, and projects lives lost in the future. As such it is no surprise that the film, and Cheang's cinema, is so intent on the finding and defining and then pursuing of a true need to live.

To answer your final question, I didn't make much time for the TIFF Cinematheque showings. I'm very happy the festival is tentatively starting to integrate retrospective titles in their lineup, but this, like the Cannes Classics programming, always seems both a random and undersized bunch. Additionally, only one film in this year's series was in 35mm. However, I did see a handful of older titles in Wavelengths, including, most stunningly, Aldo Tambellini's Black TV from 1968, a duel 16mm projection of television screens in grainy black and white centering on the Robert Kennedy shooting and forming a hectic, snowy tapestry of televisual chaos going in and out of sync with reported terror (obvious shades of Bruce Conner's Report). It catches and re-expresses in its own terms the sense of information overload of the television age and the amount of noise one must push through to find a relationship to reality—whether that relationship is transmitted, like a news broadcast of sound and image, or whether it is material like simply watching a screen. Incidentally, I found a YouTube version of this film, which in no way is related to the cacophonous immersiveness of the live performance of the double projection but should give you a sense of what it is:

And for me, the festival is over. I ended nicely on Denis Côté's lucid and provoking docu-essay Bestiaire to which in my festival-exhausted mindstate I can add little more than saying that I liked it.

I know you have at least a day more of screenings ahead of you—and I hope you too haven't succumbed to this mind and body exhaustion! Looking forward to the note you ended your TIFF on.



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