TIFF 2015. Correspondences #2

Our Toronto festival conversation continues with one of the best American films of the year , "45 Years" and "Victoria".
Daniel Kasman

Dear Fern,

It truly is wonderful to resume this festival correspondence with you. My last trip resulted in a monologue, and I'm very glad to have you here with me to tell of impressions and experiences both shared and divergent. You ask how I'm able to write on all these films across all these festivals (and surely so many others write so much better on so much more), but really it is your words I'm most eager to encounter, as you are not in the film festival "scene": your lovely erudition and insight comes from within, from love, knowledge and talent, rather than an attachment to the centripetal force of festival trends.

While my travels to Berlin, Cannes and Locarno this year may have allowed me cross some heavy-hitting big names or otherwise greatly anticipated films off my list (Toronto is playing The Assassin, Arabian Nights, In the Shadow of Women, Cemetery of Splendour, Mountains May Depart, The Lobster, Right Now, Wrong Then, The Forbidden Room, The Pearl Button, Journey to the Shore, and 88:88, among others), it would be cruel of me to suggest you avoid them too. I far rather await your fresh take. You'd be hard-pressed to find more enriching encounters in the cinema or outside it this year, but as you suggest, there's plenty more to see here than recent festival favorites. (Michael Sicinski's overview of the shorts in the experimental Wavelengths section underscores what promises we have before us. I must be upfront—and stop me if you've heard this before—if all else of TIFF but Wavelengths disappeared, I would still travel to Toronto. I'm not entirely sure the reverse is true.)

I have a strong affection for Toronto as a city, each year's return as welcoming and pleasant as the last, but this time I stood in front of the Bell Lightbox, the glorious cinematheque that re-oriented the festival center downtown to King Street West several years ago, and felt like some massive, shadowy real estate scheme has finally been realized. A tidal wave of teal-glassed luxury condos, cascading inland from the shore of Lake Ontario, has now completely engulfed the area. What was not so long ago block after demolished block of vaguely forbidding pockmarks of construction have fulfilled their threat and reached towards the sky, inhabited by a demographic I recognize but don't understand. Coming from New York I'm well acquainted with this process, I see its horrible face on the river edge of Williamsburg and in downtown Brooklyn, but I have never seen such a deep, wide swath of expansive high end development in a city before. They gleam ominously, impersonally, a bland, aloof kind of standardized opulence emanating as anonymous but dominating as their inhabitants. I wonder if Ben Wheatley's eagerly anticipated adaptation of J.G. Ballard's High Rise will have anything to say about this.

In the meantime, such titanic neighborhood shifts were on my mind because of Frederick Wiseman's new documentary, In Jackson Heights (which strangely failed a Kickstarter campaign this summer but is nevertheless playing in the Venice, Toronto and New York film festivals before getting a theatrical release in New York this fall). The United States is often described in its history, especially its early 20th century history, as a “melting pot,” but the feeling of it being a dense, perplexing mix of cultures, ethnicities, religions, nationalities and languages is something that has, except for on the margins, escaped American cinema after the mid-1930s. Yet this overworn idea and its potential for overwhelming sensation washed over me while spending time in  Wiseman’s kaleidoscopic immersion into the most diverse neighborhood in our country, Jackson Heights, in New York’s Queens borough.

If you aren’t a New Yorker familiar with the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and peoples of the area, the opening to In Jackson Heights, one of the most important American films of the year, might seem like you’re entering a different country. But indeed this dynamic collection of people—as the local New York city council member Daniel Dromm names them in an early scene: Colombians, Dominicans, Jews, Irish, Dutch, German, Bangladeshi, gay, straight, and more—all live together in a neighborhood far more indicative of the New York of old than the vast, condensed swathe of Manhattan that now resembles an outdoor luxury mall. This mall—the other boroughs are offscreen spaces only talked about, never seen—is the predominant threat to the neighborhood in fact and in symbolism, as rampant urban corporate capitalism encroaches deeper into the boroughs. (In this way, in the film Jackson Heights stands as a metonym for Queens, which stands for New York, and that for the United States.) Despite its gloriously saturated color photography, a crowded sense of desperation pervades much of the documentary, which spends the majority its time with self-selected community members who decide to participate in or contribute to the startling varied communities in the neighborhood—local government, several gay rights groups (Dromm is gay and is seen as a major part of the LGBT identity of the area), a brilliantly comedic taxi school, an immigration assembly, a small business owners gathering—speaking with pride at what they have done or are able to do in America, but also all set on bettering their positions and generally defending their identities and lifestyles from the both vague and specific outside forces implicit in the country today.

As such, Wiseman’s generous, exploratory film, which ducks into shops, hangs out at meetings and wanders through parades, feels like a gasp of fresh cinematic air, the revelation through this microcosm of the deep range of peoples—what they wear, how they talk, their concerns, their spaces, their work—that populate America but are mostly seen as the victims of tragic news stories rather than the very people who are a continuation of what defined the America “of old” and in fact are today shaping the America of the future. At the same time, this very exposure seems another tactic in colorful definition by the neighborhood intended to stave off the beachheads of Gap, Dunkin’ Donuts, Home Depot, luxury condos and other named-checked effects of the city’s Business Improvement District initiative. Is the film an explosion of cultural vibrancy or the shrinking throes of a besieged community? Wiseman’s thoughts may be found in the film’s chilling final lines, spoken by a local during a meeting at the Make the Road community center: “Here we have traveled the entire world. No matter if you are Chinese, American, Dominican, Colombian, Argentinian… we see all the countries here [...] when a person wants to steal money from their workers, he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care if they are from his country or family. If his heart is set on making an extra dollar on the worker’s back, he will.” The film ends, after this, on a beautiful old song and fireworks over the neighborhood, but I’m not sure what they are celebrating.

A different kind of slow death is seen in Andrew Haigh's 45 Years, the slow death over only a week of a decade-long marriage in the face of the imaginative power of the past. News of an old lover reaches Jim (Tom Courtenay) in the English countryside: the body of his girlfriend in the 1960s who fell down a mountain in the Alps has been finally found, frozen in ice. His history with her called before him, he sinks into morose reverie as the 45th anniversary of his marriage to Kate (Charlotte Rampling) nears. She, the actual protagonist of this subdued, lovely and intelligent film, waits for the anniversary, doing daily tasks and looking with concern at her abstracted husband, and we watch as she learns more of this lover, as the dead's presence grows in the couple's house, and as a blossoming unhappiness settles upon Kate like the fog that ensconces home. Rampling is perfect for this, her class and poise the ideal structure for her physical and emotional fragility, her hooded eye one which always seems at once self-composed and skeptical, evidence of a mind racing. Courtenay steals the picture in a pottering performance of glassy behavior, it being unclear if he's aged both in body and mind well past his wife, or if the interior devastation wrought by the emergence of his lover from the frozen ice has knocked him in an absent-minded daze, sucked him into the past. He shambles as he walks, his cadence moves in odd, halting pauses, and we learn so, so much about the couple's marriage simply in his delivery to his wife, upon first hearing the strange, morbid news: "Don't be cross Kate, I'm going to have a smoke." Suddenly, he's living the past and Kate is pinned into the present, re-thinking each thing in the moment.

Yet for such a modest film—spare setting, only two prominent characters—that allows for considerable everydayness, a comfortable lived-in quality despite the rupture in the household, Haigh's heavy hand is often felt. Dialog with the few secondary characters always seems pointedly about what the main couple is going through; day-of-the-week title cards force a grim procedural quality to the passing of a few days we would have noticed anyway without it; slow zooms underline key scenes; too many 1960s pop love songs are given an ironic turn; and a disappointing confrontation names every thing that so far had been left haunting and lucid but unsaid. It's what prevents this beautiful study, as deeply tied to its actors as a film could be, from being truly great. There are lingering, faint qualities of The Shining in the film (the isolation, the fog, the zooms, "Wednesday"), and the ending calls back to Kubrick as well, to the finale of Eyes Wide Shut, which shares the same deep blue and shimmering golds, and shares more importantly a couple that has passed through self-refection and confession and is arriving at a moment of ambivalence.  But it is this on-the-nose quality that leaves 45 Years at a powerful ambivalence rather than one that is profound.

45 Years premiered in the competition of the Berlin International Film Festival, where Adam Cook introduced it to our readers. Today was clearly "Berlin catch-up" day for me, as I followed that film with another Berlinale competitor reputed more for its technique than anything else, Sebastian Schipper's Victoria. A two and a quarter hour drama of a lonely young Spanish girl in Berlin swept along with a group of ne'er-do-well men, Victoria's calling card is that the whole thing is done in one single shot: from club to streets to stairwell to rooftop to cafe to van ride to garage gangster meeting to crime scene back to club to police shootout to stranger's apartment to taxi to hotel to street, all in one go. The camera contorts itself this way and that to try to follow unobtrusively, but the crushing tedium of "real time," filled as it is with camera movements and small talk to keep the movie active, rarely carries an immersive (on a sensory or temporal level) or philosophical (at an intellectual one) aspect. (I am reminded, Fernando, of Ozu's famed "pillow shots," once posited by an academic as a way for the camera's gaze to break and relieve us the embarrassment of looking too long at an actor. How I longed for such a break in this film!) Remember when Sokurov's audacious single-shot Russian Ark employed this technique to literally move us, unimpeded in fluid revelation, through all of Russia's history? What an idea! (Incidentally, Aleksandr Sokurov is here at the festival with a new historical film, Francofonia. More on that, no doubt, after it plays.)

To be honest, although I already walked into the film skeptical of its technical "bravura"—and was left less impressed as it went along, the technique seemingly a desperate attempt to inject tension and empathy into a flat story—it lost me only two minutes in, when this pretty young Spaniard tags along, alone at 4am, with a gang of drunk, volatile young men who clearly seem one drink away from violence and rape. The natural tension created by real-time long shots—the longer they keep going without break, the more you expect something to happen that will cause a break—teases us with a how-bad-will-this-go vibe conjoined to the (admittedly consistent) pure stupidity of the girl who can't seem to read the many, many danger signs around her. Her loneliness in no way excuses her stupidity, as clearly she isn't a stupid person but rather is as generically uncharacterized as all the men. The screenplay crowbars in some supposedly plausible exposition—she lingers on the edge of the roof, perhaps she's depressed and wild! she failed at musical conservatory, she clearly is an unspent talent waiting for her moment!—but the production is too distracted by its edit-less prowess to realize that spending over two hours following an individual around should be prompted by an interesting person and the time spent by dynamizing and increasing our understanding of who she is.

In this way, as my mind wandered, bored, I thought of Force Majeure director Ruben Östlund's Play, which is about the conniving, coercive social tricks groups can play on individuals; I thought about Hong Sang-soo's In Another Country and Hill of Freedom, two comedies ingeniously founded on the awkwardness of people not speaking the same language and relying on faulty English; and I thought of how this dark-haired "free-spirit" was so much better developed by Parker Posey in Louie two seasons ago, someone whose unhappiness fully, darkly suggested could lead her into terrible situations—all angles of promise and potential in Victoria, left unused at the wayside of the constantly prowling camera. 

I'm sorry to end on a downer, Fernando, but that's the way the day went for me. I consider it a mere prelude to the festival proper which seem to begin a-thunder for me tomorrow—Ridley Scott's The Martian, Johnnie To's musical, the first set of Wavelengths shorts, and ending with Takashi Miike's over-promisingly titled Yakuza Apocalypse. For now, I'll hold some of the more delicate moments in 45 Years dear and telling, and start to tell anyone who asks that In Jackson Heights may be the best American film of the year.

Until later,


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TIFFTIFF 2015Frederick WisemanSebastian SchipperAndrew HaighFestival Coverage
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