TIFF 2012. Correspondences #5

Dear Danny,

Ah, Passion. Perhaps not the film of the festival for me (that’s still Like Someone in Love), but certainly the one that most tickled my cinephilia. Like Kiarostami’s film, it’s a wondrous feat (a series of feats, really) of misdirection. Who are these characters who look like Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace and Karoline Herfurth but are actually gimlet-eyed projections from cinema’s past? Abstractions, sure, yet when do abstractions exude such a feeling of heated flesh, of shards of fantasies being moved around the screen like drops of mercury? The layers upon layers of De Palma’s artifice dare us to find out. It’s a crazy, thorny spiral of a movie, not “campy” but funny. Think of McAdams, done up like a parody of Grace Kelly (her blonde hair for some reason looking like a wig) in her wood-paneled office with the word “IMAGE” spelled in red, blocky letters behind her. Or of Rapace ramming her car into a Coke machine (De Palma’s Godardian side is always present), followed by a crying jag and a sudden rain that are, like everything on screen, not what they seem. (A camera movement reveals the fire-alarm sprinkler drenching the character from above, and, of course, the security lenses recording it all.)

Phone recorders, Skype screens, Internet videos… Large and tiny “eyes” everywhere. I’m fascinated by how older directors have been doing very interesting things with new technology that filmmakers from our generation seem to be taking for granted. In Dormant Beauty, Marco Bellocchio gives the same talismanic close-ups to cell phones that he gives to crucifixes. It’s a hot-button issue film, a debate on politics, Catholicism and euthanasia and an ensemble drama that unfurls during the last days in the life of Eluana Englaro, whose nearly 20-year-long coma galvanized the Italian public and media in 2009. We see not Englaro but the vigils, the protests, the prime minister waffling on TV, and the various characters caught in the whirlwind. There’s a humble, troubled politician (Toni Servillo) getting advice from a likably sardonic old doctor, draped like an ancient Roman senator at a parliamentary Turkish bath. There’s a sorrowful actress (Isabelle Huppert) marching her praying servants up and down like a sergeant to make up for her own insufficient faith. There are wayward daughters, suicidal addicts, hurried doctors, and close-ups of gorgeous women with their heads resting on giant pillows, at times blanched with suffering and at others posed like porcelain dolls. A very musical work (notice the aural swoops and drops of Bellocchio’s mise-en-scène), and a deeply humane one.

I mentioned a bit back about Bellocchio being unfairly overshadowed by Bertolucci, and I think something similar also happened to another above-the-middlebrow, not-quite-arthouse-chic filmmaker, Margerethe von Trotta. She started out with Herzog, Fassbinder and Wenders but never quite got the same attention as her German New Wave colleagues. Her portraits of young activists, sisters, nuns, and feminist historical figures shade passion into intelligence, and so it goes with Hannah Arendt, with von Trotta axiom Barbara Sukowa playing the writer of The Human Condition at the height of her controversies. There’s nothing too interesting in the film’s conventional evocation of an émigré philosopher in early 1960s New York, which is a matter of dark-wood furniture, cigarette smoke, and Janet McTeer scenery-chewing as Mary McCarthy. Where it comes alive is in the protagonist’s coverage of Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem, where the director borrows (and improves on) George Clooney’s use of archival footage within a fictionalized narrative from Good Night, and Good Luck. to present the Nazi war criminal as a shabby, slightly peeved bureaucrat in a glass cage, “a ghost with a cold.” The mix of mediocrity and monstrosity famously led Arendt to coin her “banality of evil” concept, and von Trotta’s use of new and old technology, of the confrontational inquiry of magnified celluloid grain, could be out of Notre musique.

Still, the question I most often hear is about Paul Thomas Anderson’s hugely anticipated new film: “What did you think of The Master?” I swear, Danny, that my immediate answer (“What did you think of it?”) is not cute evasion but rather the refusal to neatly pin down the gargantuan chunk of cinema that I’m in the process of digesting. The opening scenes mesmerize. There’s Joaquin Phoenix’s disturbed sailor chopping coconuts in the South Pacific beaches circa WWII, for a second or so contemplating bringing down the machete on his own hand. And then glances of the unsettled underbelly of postwar prosperity, with its cavernous department stores redolent of Ophüls and Sirk. From one army to another, a void to be filled: The anguished, horny ape needs his organ grinder, and finds him in the rubicund self-styled prophet (Philip Seymour Hoffman) whose growing faith movement (“The Cause”) peddles enlightenment to the new decade. In a tale of schisms, of “silly animals” and obscure “perfections,” their bond is a peculiar mix of exploitation and mentorship, sadism and dependency. And, in its intimations of masculine assertiveness and self-doubt, the film turns out to be even more fixated on cocks than Boogie Nights. (Not for nothing is the leader’s book titled “The Split Saber”).

Anderson is as much a swaggering camera virtuoso as De Palma, but where Passion dedicates itself to obfuscating, The Master aims to expose, to chip away à la Stroheim. The Scientology exposé angle is easily its least interesting aspect. Better to see it as a continuation of There Will Be Blood’s devouring fathers and sons, a luxuriating, sensuous spectacle, a clash of contrasting faces and acting styles, and a scabrous comedy that purposely deranges the old movie tropes about troubled loners getting miraculously cured in therapy. It’s not without flaws (which I suspect will be amplified rather than smoothed over by subsequent viewings), yet it lingers as a simultaneously scorching and icy vision from a filmmaker who continues to locate the edge of the world in unexpected pockets of America.

Speak soon,
Fern

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  • rado

    Thank you for giving De Palma fans what they want. Sorry, I mean what they dream of :)

    P.S. What do you make of the literalist negative reviews of Passion?

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