0639 Caves of Forgotten Dreams (Werner Herzog, USA)
If you’ve been waiting for a truly creative, for a truly auteur use of 3-D, here it is. (And now maybe we can forget about this "trend" or "solution" or "manufactured craze," yes?) Werner Herzog's exploration of caves and cave paintings is a natural fit for the technology, finding in the digital pseudo-depth of the variable recesses and oscillating torchlight of the Chauvet cave in southern France an eerie, alien space. The techno-aesthetic helps re-wire our brain to finally see a bit of the world as Herzog sees it, a powerful expression of the singularity of human kind and the magnificent mystery of its existence on earth. The cave paintings themselves are, in a way, 3-D compositions painted upon and utilizing the contours of the cave walls to mimic energy and movement. The cave’s opening collapsed long ago to seal in cave paintings dating back 35,000 years, making the cave itself a time capsule perfectly preserving the remnants of animal life and human culture within. Yet, as the climatic and highly flattened montage of these remarkably agile and detailed paintings emphasize, the cinema is itself a two-dimensional art but mimicking 3-D space—and that these awesome, mysteriously animated works of animal life, vivacity and beauty evoke not just their time but, like any art, an interpretation of their time...and the link to cinema is complete. (Not to mention references to shadow play, Fred Astaire, Plato’s cave, and painters drawing multiple legs to imply moving images.) The revelation of these exact and eloquent works are among the most fragile and moving of Herzog’s career, and their power is not lessened but rather enhanced by the filmmaker’s staged tableaux of cave scientists looking around their find, their study, their life, in pseudo/quasi awe, and by including 3-D documentary shots of their office space (!). It is impossible to bullshit the astounding, beyond-ancient majesty of the paintings in the film (as cowards call bullshit on the sensitivity of The Bad Lieutenant or other unfair declarations against such a risk-taking, primordial image maker), and seeing them, I think, reveals a bit about how Herzog views most of the things he chooses to film, the expressions he evokes. Something right there right then—even in fiction—but beyond (though including) the immediacy of the document; there is something that is thrust far past the surface evidence, tapping deeper, older, more primal, secretive, key. It is this search which drives Herzog’s cinema, and that in his search he hasn't only created or fictionalized images but has actually found true evidence in the depths of mountain caverns must fulfill the director's wildest fictional dreams.
0640 Promises Written in Water (Vincent Gallo, USA)
Vincent Gallo’s slender, tender film is a rare vision here at TIFF, and a precious vision of a relationship at that. The title calls to mind Yoshishige Yoshida’s severe, oneiric story of doomed, incestuous love, A Story Written with Water, and DP Masanobu Takayanagi’s black and white photography recalls the images of Philippe Garel. There is a knife-like elliptical quality to the film, mixing brief, oblique inserts of decadently meager (or meagerly decadent) settings, scenes, images (graveyards, ponds, L.A., Gallo alone at a diner, a woman alone in a bath), with longer takes, often amusingly and with great fragility improvised, between actress Delfine Bafort and Gallo. As in the story of Nobuhiro Suwa’s emotionally rough 2/Duo, Gallo asks Bafort suddenly to marry him, to troubled result. The tentative, experimental emotions of the couple’s scenes together are strangely deflected by the film’s other major plotline, one as morose as it is funny, of Gallo’s employment at a funeral parlor (despite “having money” and having “a nice home,” as he repeatedly insists to Bafort). This job stands out grotesquely in a film otherwise made up of delicate, risky slices of Gallo’s persistent uptight melancholy—since the job starts and remains as the most concrete element in a film mostly made up of silences and occasional, halting conversations centered on the couple’s emotional hesitancy—and despite the detail's quirky-random, morbid obviousness, nevertheless pointedly casts a pall of death across the film. This is perhaps the second Garrel connection, that feeling from the first images of the fragility of the images, and in them the fragility of the lives they hold in their motion. Perhaps this is why it is revealed that Gallo takes the job to photograph the dead? (And a dead beautiful woman at that.) Or that one of the most moving scenes is of Delfine Bafort simply dancing in a low angle, lit in high key—certainly a Garrelian effort to preserve an in-the-moment emotional beauty that is over by the time the film has captured its image. (Another wonderful scene with Bafort has her sniffling and wiping her eyes against an manic, single-minded verbal attack by Gallo; it seems as much as she can do in the role, as an actress, as a person in the face of all that, and is very moving.) That dancing moment, free of thought, is a momentary relief, for much of the film is thinking: as in another fascinating shot of Gallo stalking back and forth in his room doing what we can’t tell because of the angle and length of the zoom, all we get is indecision and nervousness, until he finally plops on his bed, smoking, and his eyes reveal the worry that his constricted geometry of movements now clearly pointed towards. Smoking is the final central motif in the film, as it is the activity Gallo the director gives Gallo the actor as something for him to do, and perhaps the ephemerality of the smoke and the delicate, oblique limpidity of the film are part of the same concern, a concern for lasting things and the lasting of things.
0641 Meek’s Cutoff (Kelly Reichardt, USA)
Is the Oregonian wilderness of Reichardt’s new Western all that different from the forest of Old Joy or the abandoned small town of Wendy and Lucy? This Oregon trilogy, if you will, is as contemporary as American cinema can get, even when set in 1845—hard-scrabbling Americans working themselves raw in either spiritual or material impoverishment, or both, in a highly specified environment cast with its own resonant character that moves, somehow, to something more powerful, stranger than its simple self. Meek’s Cutoff, as minimalist a Western as Boetticher, Mann, or Hellman (the latter perhaps the best comparison) ever envisioned, and probably more so, like most Westerns lays its allegory immediate and bare: a group of settlers are lead astray by a dandyish cowboy trailblazer (Bruce Greenwood) who may or may not know what he’s talking about, until the group’s doubt and the appearance of an Indian on the empty, waterless plains inspires an ambivalent desire to let the indigenous man guide them instead, much to the vehement warnings of the cowboy. The political allegory is blatantly apparent, but so much so that it is less interesting than the film’s physical richness, human silences, and spare but telling details of activities, social groups, and weary states of mind. It is very much a material film, all about how difficult it is to walk long distances in dresses, the random details of day to day life traversing the plains (gathering kindling, fixing wagon wheels), and is replete with observances of the settler group, like the way the men decide everything while the women await the revelation of new information and decisions (yet some men privately look to their wives for signals), how the lack of privacy in the group forces people to walk a little ways off to have a small conversation, and how each of the three families in the wagon train generally keep to themselves at breakfast and dinner and address each other with respect rather than a total sense of community one expects. It is because Reichardt and her regular writer Jon Raymond spend so much time quietly evoking the group’s dynamic that its interaction with their doubt about the cowboy and the hope and fear of the Indian carry so much weight. That and, of course, Reichard’s style of modest, direct presentation of her actors, their behavior, and their consternation and worry. Light falling on the plains, the pale, colorful hope of the women’s dresses, the three simple and simply different couples in the train, the constant movement onward—all make for an almost trancelike film unencumbered by the wheezing burden of a hundred years of the genre’s history and instead centered on never-ending, trudging movement, where the encumbrances as well as the comforts come from the exact, beautiful facts of this challenging world: the squeak of the wagon wheel, the upset caress of a husband’s beard by his worried wife, the ambivalent fascination of the Indian by one woman (Michelle Williams, hopefully now and forever a Reichardt regular, and certainly one of the few American actresses who I am sure could actually survive the travails this director fictionally puts her in), the unspoken but highly evocative relationship between an older man and his second, younger wife… Reichardt has revealed herself a master in the Sjöström mold, of exploring the dynamic between humans and the landscape and humans and themselves within it. The key difference, among many, is that Meek’s Cutoff’s contests of will and self-questioning through the world are as much about the interior states of its characters as it is about the world outside the films, here and now in 2010.