TIFF 2016. Correspondences #5

Terence Davie's Emily Dickinson biopic, Walter Hill's transgender hit(wo)man movie, and Werner Herzog's latest fiction.
Fernando F. Croce

Salt and Fire

Dear Danny,

Funny you mention genre, as A Quiet Passion would seem to belong to my least favorite one: the biopic. Or not really, for directors create their own genres, great ones do, and Terence Davies is among the greatest now at work. His Emily Dickinson, splendidly embodied by Cynthia Nixon, is no genteel figurine reciting favorite verses but a sharp and unyielding intelligence twisting in a severe body and a severe era. Right from the start, refusing to move to one side or another when her seminary is divided according to faith, she will not give an inch. (“You are alone in your rebellion,” snaps the headmistress, crucifix looming in the background.) At her Massachusetts family home, words—not just the budding poetess’ stanzas, but bon mots, barbs, any curlicues of witty verbiage—are cherished cracks in staid domesticity, like the songs in Meet Me in St. Louis. Emily’s socialite friend Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey) is especially musical in her epigrams, and the writer gazes at her brashness with delight and envy. But how quickly comedy must yield to tragedy! (This is a film in which, in special effects worth more than all blockbuster blitzkriegs put together, the camera dollies toward a character’s face and the heft of several decades is imprinted in a matter of seconds.) Her quill pen furiously scratching at notebooks during late-night sessions, Emily pours herself into her work as if fighting that great Davies monster, the passage of time.

“Don’t demonstrate, reveal.” Davies has for forty years revealed his cinematic inner life, at once stately and quakingly emotional. The 19th-century of A Quiet Passion, rendered in stark and incandescent digital light, is not a matter of antique furniture but of artistic souls urgently bumping against the limits of their surroundings. (Not for nothing is the overhead screen often used to frame characters’ whole bodies like premature caskets.) The Civil War comes and goes, daringly compressed into a brief passage of tinted photographs and frayed flags. Emily’s life continues, a published poem here and an unconsummated romance there, always ready to quarrel and bond with her sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) and brother Austin (Duncan Duff). (I loved your observation about her mother hovering on the edges in her own private drama, Danny. The same could be said of her father, certainly the least iron-fisted patriarch in the filmmaker’s oeuvre and given a humorously cadaverous elegance by Keith Carradine.) A conventional biopic would soften Dickinson with flashbacks to her happier times or flashforwards to her eventual fame; Davies’ stays by her side in the bedroom where she yearns and rages, consumed by illness and her own uncompromising temperament. A shimmering, clear-eyed elegy from one poet to another, it’s every bit as personal as the director’s autobiographical features—Davies contemplates his heroine’s intransigence, her struggle with morality and mortality, and, like Flaubert, whispers “c’est moi.” It’s nothing less than his Gertrud.

Bless the film festival that allows me to go from the sublime drawing room to the sublime gutter, and from A Quiet Passion to (re)Assignment. A very different but scarcely less personal portrait of a lady, Walter Hill’s lurid fever-dream unfolds like a lost Hong Kong thriller from the 80s, a companion piece to his underrated Johnny Handsome, and a most bizarre treatise on artistes maudits. As soon as Michelle Rodriguez turns up in male drag playing a male killer named Frank Kitchen, her Brando brow hanging over a beard that makes her look unaccountably like Rainer Werner Fassbinder, it’s clear that the film has more on its mind than simply reinforcing the “macho prison,” as someone puts it, of the standard revenge bulletfest. The scrambled narrative is triggered by one Dr. Rachel Jane (Sigourney Weaver), a disgraced surgeon introduced straitjacketed in a mental institution, haughtily admonishing her interrogator (Tony Shalhoub) for not knowing his Shakespeare. She sees herself as a maestro in her field (a proudly decadent one, Edgar Allan Poe quote always a the ready), and her latest opus mingles the punishment of vengeance with the romanticism of a second chance: Kidnapping Frank, her brother’s murderer, and turning him into a woman (Rodriguez, sans whiskers and CGI dong).

A pissed-off assassin cut into a female body is actually the sane center of (re)Assignment’s combustible delirium. Comic-book freeze-frames, iris transitions, videotape confessions and Giorgio Moroder pounding comprise this “philosophical crossroads,” where characters snarl with pistols or monologue like Racine players. (The transparency of Vancouver standing in for San Francisco and the gratuitous use of location and time cards only add to the oneiric effect.) Hill’s reputation is that of a no-nonsense action specialist, and there are robust gunblasts all through the film, yet his heart here belongs to those baroque moments between shootouts—to Rodriguez’s lopsided leer as her character adjusts this new physique in the middle of a tryst, or to Weaver’s uproarious glance of manipulative superiority directed at the institutional clods who can’t see her artistry. Its gender ideologies are those of what in the 70s used to be called an “incoherent text,” but its slicing of pulp masculinity is dense and sneaky. (What other testosterone-addled thriller would erect a literal shrine featuring pictures of Joe Dallesandro’s young, androgynous beauty?) Served up to accommodate nobody but its maker, (re)Assignment builds to an image that’s as goofy as it is extraordinarily suggestive. Without giving too much away, Danny, let me just say that Hill the mad genre surgeon is far from working with misshapen tools.

Another transformation: A painful slog for its first half or so, Werner Herzog’s Salt and Fire suddenly becomes perplexingly hypnotic and arresting. In other words, it becomes a Herzog film. The early scenes, depicting a trio of U.N. delegates getting kidnapped while investigating “the Diablo Blanco disaster” in South America, try the patience with continuous, weightless camera movements and line-readings so stilted they sound dubbed. The clash is between the “data and statistics” of the Amazonian blonde scientist (Veronica Ferres) and the soulful enigmas of her captor (Michael Shannon), a remorseful CEO given to such koans as “there’s no reality, there’s only views of reality” and “truth is the only daughter of time.” (As one of the other researchers, Gael García Bernal enters quoting Alexander the Great and exits moaning of diarrhea.) And then the visions begin. A graveyard of rusty locomotives. An island of stone in the middle of endless, battered salt flats. A pair of semi-blind young brothers with royal Incan names, clutching Godzilla dolls and playing Monopoly. The magic begins to take hold, and by the end I was wondering if the film’s first half wasn’t meant as a self-consciously labored mockery of “ecological thrillers,” mere scaffolding for the German director’s more intuitive images and discoveries. Your guess is as good as mine, Danny. I just know that, yes, I’m still gladly following Herzog to the ends of the world.



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