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TIFF 2012. Correspondences #9

Our critics' TIFF dialogue comes to a close with films by Sarmiento, Ruiz, Kitano, Radwanski and Cohen.

Dear Danny,

And so our TIFF dialogue comes to a close. A jet-lagged, discombobulated close, filed rather late and written largely in the limbo of airport terminals, suffused with that distinctly Portuguese melancholia known as “saudades.”

Indeed, the word turns up in Lines of Wellington, defined onscreen by that grand old satyr Michel Piccoli as the yearning for “what could have been, but wasn’t.” Fittingly, this historical epic—set in 1810 and detailing the clash between Anglo-Portuguese and Napoleonic troops as viewed by an ensemble of military and civilian figures—was supposed to have been directed by Raúl Ruiz, but after the Chilean master filmmaker passed away those duties fell instead to his widow, Valeria Sarmiento. The concept of Sarmiento, herself a director of nearly 20 films, shooting a panorama “prepared” by Ruiz certainly tantalizes. The stolid cinema de qualité pageant that resulted, however, turned out to be the antithesis of Ruiz’s sublimely slippery camera, a drugged elephant dragging itself across the screen, connecting dot-like characters and stopping dead in its tracks to make room for whatever star had dropped by producer Paulo Branco’s office. (As the Duke of Wellington, John Malkovich gives the ponderous spectacle its solitary whiff of deranged drollery. Battles explode around him, but he’s too busy scolding the artist who painted his portrait: “Fix that nose, will you? It’s quite urgent.”)

Night Across the Street, now that’s more like it. It’s the last film Ruiz officially directed before his death, and, as soon as the protagonist finds himself in an oneiric translation class and the alarm clock in his pocket starts ringing and scuttling away like an excited pet, I knew it would be a gratifyingly strange farewell. Drawn from three short cuentos by Hernan del Solar, it’s a procession of nested apparitions, projections and reveries arranged like a testament written in smoke. At the center is an old office worker (Sergio Martinez) recalling his early years as an imaginative boy, when he could spar with Long John Silver and take Beethoven to the movies. But who’s remembering (or imagining) whom? Retirement and mortality (the same thing, just about, to a prolific fable-weaver like Ruiz) and dwindling time (“You can almost touch it as it passes”) are imprinted on every collapsing composition, and yet this is a most joyous vision. There are Proustian incantations and CGI screens, peerlessly elegant visual jokes, a personal look at Chile’s past that’s more resonantly political than any of Pablo Larraín’s Pinochet-era dramas, plus an absurdly lovely metaphor for filmmaking in the main character’s collection of model ships in bottles. Aptly, it closes on a séance: Here we are attempting to analyze a great director’s swan song, while he chuckles softly from the hereafter.

What else? I endured Costa-Gavras’ arthritic Le capital, an anti-corporation pamphlet that looks particularly feeble next to hard-edged items like Cosmopolis or The Girlfriend Experience. I won’t go into its failings now; suffice to say that its hyper-capital lingo (“insider trading” this, “hedge funding” that) is also heard, with more forcefulness and wit, in the yakuza gatherings of Outrage Beyond, which continues Takeshi Kitano’s recent return to the brutal tales of underworld Japan that made his name. I quickly got lost in its labyrinth of clans, bosses, henchmen and cops, though I doubt my confusion was due only to festival exhaustion; not unlike Jean-Pierre Melville, Kitano deliberately sees crime gangs as interchangeable entities in an unending Möbius strip of tableaux shattered by bullets and knives. Even when applying a power drill to an enemy thug or making grisly use of a baseball batting cage, his camerawork is here at its most classical; in fact, there’s something about the gangster meetings—these bulky figures in dark suits blackening up the image—that reminded me, weirdly enough, of Oliveira’s Gebo and the Shadow. “Even a yakuza has principles,” someone snaps at one point, but Kitano’s solid (if unsurprising) thriller steadfastly refuses outlaw sentimentalism in its view of a shadowy world where the only flashes of light come from gunfire.

I was also impressed by Kazik Radwanski’s feature debut Tower, which, like Matías Piñeiro’s Viola, is a mysterious study in close-ups. In place of that Argentinean film’s almost Rivettean lightness, however, this deceptively unassuming portrait of a thirtysomething Toronto misfit traffics in low-key discomfort. The socially and physically awkward antihero (Derek Bogart) lives in his parents’ basement, works obsessively on a bit of blocky computer animation, and nurses the unhealed gash between his distant, dread-pouched eyes. “Just sort of fading in and out here,” he murmurs under the sheets as his not-quite-girlfriend stares at him. Often framing a stubbly, balding face against a galaxy of out-of-focus abstractions, Radwanski’s camera reveals an ability to lose itself in visceral action—a dip into a bathtub filled with ice cubes, a late-night rush of head-banging beats and popcorn—even as its gaze remains as vacant as the protagonist’s. Part deadpan theater of evasion and confrontation, part acrid retort to mumblecore celebrations of the arrested man-child, it’s a sustained accumulation of anxiety that’s capped by an intriguing anticlimax involving a hissing, scavenging raccoon.

And, lastly, Museum Hours. “I’ve had my share of loud, now I have my share of quiet,” says the middle-aged guard (Robert Sommer) making the rounds of Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, and Jem Cohen’s gentle stroll through this majestic cultural institution contemplates the vulnerable visitors walking down the corridors with the same attention and curiosity as the vast canvases hanging on the walls. As a friendship blooms between the guard and a pensive tourist (Mary Margaret O’Hara) and Cohen’s wry essayistic sensibility seeps absorbingly into his narrative, I couldn’t help notice how much the setting reflected the festival experience itself. Think about it, Danny: A place of discovery and reflection, of stimulation and weariness, where we rush from one exhibition to another and cross paths and swap interpretations with fellow travelers. Art as the facilitator of human connection is the film’s theme, and as such I can’t think of a better finale for my TIFF sojourn.

Hope to continue our talk next year!

Warmly,

Fern

Beautiful comment on Museum Hours.
Thank you for reading and commenting, Artemis. I do hope Museum Hours gets some kind of release, it’s quite special.
Just watched the Museum Hours trailer. That looks very promising. Hope it gets release. Does anyone know more about the director? Thanks for the comments on all these films!

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