TIFF 2010. Day 2

0204 A Useful Life (Federico Veiroj, Uruguay)

Should we be worried, or at the very least troubled and sad, that the amount of melancholy homages to dying film theaters keep coming?  (Or perhaps even sadder, the films either die at the box office or aren’t even picked up for distribution, some kind of horrible irony.) Federico Veiroj’s wonderfully trim and sensitive record of working at a place—and that place happens to be a cinema—is another elegiac entry in a micro-genre being slowly carved out by such filmmakers as Tsai Ming-liang (Goodbye, Dragon Inn) and Lisandro Alonso (Fantasma) which explore the soon-to-be-abandoned spaces that will soon be inhabited only by the ghosts of cinema.  Distinctly ungeeky in its cinephilia, A Useful Life, like the aforementioned films, upends the sentimental nostalgia of so many homage a cinema by being itself rather than a love letter to something else.  The director’s personality is felt, a cinematic space (in both senses) is constructed in the film, whether it actually resembles or not the real cinematheque in Montevideo where the story is set, and A Useful Life emerges as the truest sort of homage—being the exact kind of movie that would play at that poor, dying institution.  Quiet, succinctly considerate detail is paid to a myriad of small and exact elements that make up the running of a cinema, from the maintenance of theater seating, the retrieval of film cans in a tight archive hallway, and the way programmers will nod to a projectionist to start the film after an announcement, to the minutes of a banal office meeting and the beauty of the rotating opaque shadows the spooling projector throws on the booth’s wall.  Indeed, the film’s immediate deadpan charisma and modest beauty (shot unassumingly in 1.33 black and white) comes from how distinctly particular its details are to the running of a theater, but also crucially how these details are part of everyday work applicable to any business in which people are personally invested.  The success of the film is thus tied as much to Veiroj as it is to the casting and performance of lead actor Jorge Jellinek, who plays a cinematheque programmer who worked at the institution for the last 20 years, a personal investment if there ever was one (another actor in the film, Manuel Martínez Carril, is, in real life, a similar figure, having worked there for nearly 35 years).   The factual, near serene and unencumbered death of the theater is seen through the make up of his job, sorting screeners, recording promotional material (“You love good cinema.  You need the cinematheque.”) and listening to a board member hand down news of an elimination of funding.  The film takes a curious and I’m not sure entirely successful, though undoubtedly necessary, turn away from the cinema in its second half, where our programmer-hero he leaves the theater to wander Montevideo in a kind of filmic reverie of melancholy and mirthful unemployment.  The sensitivity in this segment is a mark to Veiroj’s keen eye towards material and architectural detail surrounding his film, as well as the humor and pleasingly, gently inert humanity embodied in Martínez Carrilo’s affably schlumpy, rarely emotive and entirely effective performance. Definitely one of the festival’s finest films, which I was count my blessings I was able to see in an actual theater, albeit a multiplex and not a cinematheque.

0205 Summer of Goliath (Nicolás Pereda, Mexico)

A mystery of a film by the promising Mexican director Nicolás Pereda—who already had a film out this year (Rotterdam’s All Things Were Now Overtaken By Silence), and was recently profiled extensively in Cinema Scope by Robert Koehler—seems to be organized like a constellation.  A variety of people—a young man who, rumor has it, killed his girlfriend, a mother distraught after her husband leaves her, a pair of fatherless boys, and young man discharged from the army—are held in mysterious orbit around something—their town, friendships, family relations?—but the film is too vague and dislocated to say what.  Feeling both half formed and half finished, this sketch carries the most weight when Pereda breaks the loose fiction by interviewing his cast members about their lives—again, real or fictional, who can say.  (Koehler astutely pointed to another flawed but interesting movie with a similar structure, Matthew Porterfield's Putty Hill.)  Between the interviews are long sequences of following people through fields and forests with loosely throwaway dialog, but the sense of setting and space is lost and without character, and a later sequence clearly shot with locals shooting the shit with the actors and director makes clear the unnaturalness of most of the film’s interactions.  As befits a malformed sketch, unexpected eccentricities become the film’s highlights.  A long take involving the abandoned woman writing a matter of fact letter in real time to her husband, then having her son go over the text again and again to memorize it (“because you have the handwriting of a five year old) is already funny and sad, but is eventually capped by a sudden cut away to the son shirking the responsibility by going through the text with an old lady, having her memorize it instead.  A similar absurdist long take documentary shot:  the finale of a woman wearing the clothes of her husband that she’s been verily throwing away or packing up throughout the film, crawling in the mud and making weary, forlorn animal noises. Erratic moments aside, most of the work fails, not just to connect but even to suggest, leaving us floating amidst what seems like the detritus, half fact half fiction, of research notes to a more complete feature film.

0206 Deep in the Woods (Benoît Jacquot, France)

Benoît Jacquot and actors Isild le Besco and Nahuel Perez Biscayart literalize l’amour fou by taking it back to the 19th century and casting an aura of magic and insanity over that giddy impulse.  Jacquot sources his romance (!) from wild child texts and films like Truffaut’s The Wild Child and Herzog’s Every Man For Himself and God Against All in this unusual gothic tale of a young maiden being “mesmerized” by the sorcery of a homeless vagabond and taking to the road with him.   The film’s first third is the strongest, pulling from uneasy provincial references of satanic possession, extreme religious piety, woman’s nerves, feminine solitude, new science and peasant superstition to weave an ambiguity contemporary to the time about the young woman’s repulsions and desires and the young man’s “unnatural” hold on her.  Supposedly through trickery (gestures become like spells), the infatuation seems one-sided at first, but the film’s middle third reveals the sorcery motif to be a basic analogical pretext to rationalize an irrational love and/or sexual desire in the 19th century.  As the sex picks up and the magic is put down, the film’s black charm fades a bit—lacking the opening act’s quality of looking like the usual French bourgeois costume drama, except scenes all seem to feature the squirrely, bedraggled Perez Biscayart seducing le Besco with his eyes while he “charms” her with his fingers.  The last act pulls the most boring finale stunt in the cinematic rule book—a court trial to test resolve and reveal true intentions—but by then the film has milked enough pleasure out of its actress’ dour reveries and glorious, unexpected smiles (all the more glorious because they are so rare and breaking, practically upsetting the drama), all puppeted and then genuinely elicited from the soulful mystery of the horny wild man from the woods. I can’t say there’s much nuance to the film’s weird pursuit of period love, but the crossed-wires of neurotic madness and sexual affection has a mesmeric charm and power of its own.

0207 Brownian Movement (Nanouk Leopold, Netherlands)

Prescriptive-procedural cinema is among the most squirm-worthy and irritating styles of the art. Brownian Movement by Nanouk Leopold, who directed the promising Wolfsbergen, falls into this trap, facilitated by employing a style pioneered by Antonioni so long ago that it has become an unfortunate aesthetic default for a certain strain of art cinema that no longer holds any weight in its compositional composure and pictorial precision.  When joined to a prescriptive-procedural scenario—as it is in this film, where a beautiful young woman separates her life into one half as doctor-mother-wife and one half as eccentric nymphomaniac, is then exposed, and has to deal with the consequences—a scenario that is a diagram, a closed, delineated path with no life on the sides, no details but ones that thunder and echo in the focused emptiness of the film world, the result is being left in profound boredom.  Which is a real shame for this film, as it has at its center a tremendous performance as clinically precise in its introspected abstraction by actress Sandra Hüller as the film is aesthetically so.  Leopold is understandably very interested in her, even to such a degree that Hüller's facial ticks and the shades of bemusement and lost melancholy that pass over her face nearly destabilize and undermine the control that makes the film so sullen and oppressive.  But the whole thing is told in that sub-Antonioni vein of supposedly clinical, supposedly alienated, supposedly disconnected distance, and it uses unfair silences and contrived ellipses to control our insight into the very character the film is so photographically intent on studying.  All trace of natural exploration or revelation are eliminated in this crooked method of “developing” the plot and mystifying Hüller's ultimately opaque center.  We are instead guided like sheep—but contemplative sheep, since this is art cinema and one of pregnant silences and empty interiors amply decorated—guided through the course set out for the film since it’s very first shot.

0208 – 0215 Wavelengths 1:  Soul of the City

In complete contrast to that film’s single-track vision was Tomonari Nishikawa’s masterpiece Tokyo – Ebisu (Japan), playing in the first program of the experimental cinema section, Wavelengths.  Nishikawa’s film is made up of single shots that take the subway stops around a Tokyo train loop as its subject, but divides the frame into various sections and montages within them other shots taken from the same vantage point but at different times, creating an interior rhythm of light, graphic movement, and social and technological activity rooted in space but dynamic in time.  The result is a spatially singular but poly-temporal series of sequence-shots that appear to enter the fourth dimension: from each view of each station we can literally see the same thing at other times taking place now, as if given the ability to see a quantum universe of simultaneous dimensions with subtle differences.  This overlap seemed to climax in Dominic Angerame’s film which followed, The Soul of Things (USA), which starts amongst construction detritus that seems the spatial equivalent of the temporal pileup from Nishikawa's film, as if you rotated the camera of Tokyo - Ebisu around so that all time dimensions (and trains) collapsed and this was the resulting wreckage, shown in blown out black and white.  But Angerame’s narrative gradually effaces this sense, moving from ruins to demolition to construction to the bayside stasis of resting, inactive docks, stepping away from the chaos that opens the film and finding a calm clarity.  But Callum Cooper’s Victoria, George, Edward & Thatcher (UK) picks up the thread both of railroad films and space-time crunches, taking the brilliant form of a hurried, start and stop montage of graphically matching iPhone photos of the fronts of nearly identical English housing developments.  The skittering pace makes noticing significant detail or depth to the images impossible, and instead what can only be noted in the flurry are the micro variations in each door front, window shade, address display.  Like with Tokyo - Ebisu, the revelation is in the endless minute permutations that exist in a world when you narrow your focus to a single element.  What through the editing effect seems like an epic tracking shot down several repetitively architectonic blocks in actual fact has no sense of time and instead nearly morphs or at least adjusts—more quantum mechanics—pictorial space to suggest endless possibilities inside a set format.  Likewise Eriko Sonoda’s Landscape, semi-surround (Japan), another of the filmmaker’s awe-inspiring use of montaging still photographs of still photographs to get the impression that her film (which is actually a series of images edited together in quick succession) is filming a film  (which is again an animated set of still images)—all of a train ride no less, "projected" on a room's wall for a beautifully animated effect of train "movement" no Lumière brother ever could have contemplated.  Here there is no space, but as in Victoria, George, the simplicity of movement of still images create the illusion of a kind of ultimate time, rapidly shifting forward and backward and even mirrored (inside out?), as Sonoda brilliantly turns her photographs around so we only see ghostly reversed impressions of what we’d just been watching.

(Not remarked upon: Get Out of the Car [Thom Anderson, USA); Everywhere Was the Same [Basma Al Sharif, USA/Palestine]; Leona Alone [Oliver Husain, Canada])

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  • idreamincelluloid

    yes, the melancholy dwelling of directors upon the cinema of yesteryear, though okay at times, but one can not live on nostalgia alone.

  • bramruiter

    Let me be a dick by noting it’s Nanouk Leopold. Not Anouk.

    I’ve, by the way, worked on the film, but did not know until just now it was being presented at the Toronto Film Festival. I presume she didn’t want to première it in Holland.

  • Daniel Kasman

    Thank you for the correction! An unintended and unfortunate error.

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