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TIFF 2015. Correspondences #4

Johnnie To’s 3D corporate musical, battling scissors & carpet, Damon’s decent “The Martian”, & avant-garde shorts from Toronto’s festival.
Fallen Objects. Image: Courtesy of the artist
Hey Fernando, are you at a film right now? Sneaking away from the festival always feels so wrong, doesn't it? We're here to grind through, to fill every empty moment in our day with yet another film or another few dashed words of writing, and so stepping out of the multiplex to grab a leisurely meal with a friend or to explore a new neighborhood inspires in me nothing but guilt. Luckily, the festival has thought of such things and has given me reasons to get away from the festival center...more films! The Wavelengths section, which curates a more radical type of cinema than the rest of the fest, has often featured video art pieces installed both near and far during the festival (you may recall last year I reported on a wonderful piece in Future Projections, the old name of the Wavelengths off-shoot for gallery art during the festival). This year Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson, who are bringing their febrile The Forbidden Room to the festival, are practically taking over the ground floor of the Lightbox with their work. That has yet to open so instead I went a-traveling away from it all.
Flung quite far indeed from the festival was a new piece by Shambhavi Kaul, whom you may remember myself and others praising for her films (21 Chitrakoot, Mount Song, Night Noon) when they showed in the shorts programs at Wavelengths.  Kaul has taken an ambitious, tricky step for her cinema by putting it in the gallery context, but indeed this new work, Fallen Objects, is best suited for it: a short montage of shots, all culled from traditional cinema whose sources are mysterious, are projected on loop in a randomized order. The "protagonists," if we can call them that, are clear: a floating, seemingly all powerful pair of scissors, and a flying carpet lined in neon green, Kaul as usual finding remarkable phantasmagoric elements in films that she then strips away the story context from to render mysterious, magical, sentient and powered by some unseen force.
In this loop, the scissors and carpet seem to forever fight an aborted duel in the sky, flying at each other and then coming apart in an explosion. Yet the randomization of the shots and Kaul's honed editing of them keeps the actual original (if there was one) order of the shots, the narrative being imagined, always possible but never precisely fitting. The origins, struggle and outcome of this burst of images changes subtly each time, each part seems to have a different power with each re-arrangement, the carpet sometimes cut in two, sometimes formed from two into one, the objects one time flung at each other and another flung apart. The experience of watching this short-yet-long loop was an unusual one, where first I tried to fit it all together but eventually my mind either gave up or moved on to other aspects of the work, and I unexpectedly found that I had forgotten one of the (very few) shots in the piece until it reared itself in a different place. Even more remarkable, perhaps, is that because of the contorting, torquing shapes the flying carpet twists itself into (shapes mirrored somewhat on the gallery floor by dark pieces of fabric looking like erratically shorn, unilluminated brethren to the glorious neon rug on screen), I never was confident some of the shots weren't new ones being feathered into the loop; my mind simply could never remember exactly how the fabric had shifted, folded and turned. (It seems no mistake that the dominant images in this piece are scissors and what could be taken as a screen, thus the two aren't just fighting but perhaps performing a dance of cinema, edit and image.) The experience felt like Alain Resnais meets wuxia stripped of their humans and leaving us an endless set of possible magic.
A film completely without magic is Ridley Scott's straight-forward, literalist The Martian, a lengthy piece of stranded-in-space hard sci-fi—meaning more realistic—with neither the flourished tension of Gravity nor the satisfying practicality and acute psychological observation of Cast Away. Adapted from Andy Weir's bestselling book, the film above all feels like a milquetoast piece of propaganda for a financially deflated NASA which seems starved for inspiring excitement and, well, inspiration in people. This explains the casting of Matt Damon as the astronaut accidentally left stuck on Mars by his crew: the guy we watch problem solve his survival has the firm, good guy moral values Damon's earnest good sense brings with him. (I really care for this actor, and not only because he brings to rare life these days the old big screen idea of plain American decency evoked by Henry Fonda and James Stewart. But I'm still waiting for Damon to find some darkness within, the kind that so richly complicates My Darling Clementine or Winchester '73 for those actors.) Indeed, The Martian does make the extravagant possibilities of scientific knowledge seem very cool, as well as remarkably easy to deploy with limited means left alone on a vacant alien planet, because Scott speeds through all the process and details that not doubt would have been deeply satisfying to watch carefully. Aside from breezing through the good stuff, the film also overfills the bloated story with a parade of bureaucrats and scientists back home, all either played by distractingly recognizable actors or people too pretty for their parts. They are no doubt surrogates for our anxious but impressed respect for Damon's lone astronaut, but they also bog the film down in exactly the kind of deflating boardroom and mission control business that constantly de-romanticizes Damon's survival accomplishments on the red planet.
After Gravity and Mission to Mars, is this really adding to our imaginative idea of space? Nearly every exterior shot of the Martian landscape is done from a swooping helicopter vantage utterly bereft of either the grandeur of an immense, completely foreign place or the profound loneliness and inner turmoil of one left behind. A title card reading "7 months later" reveals a more bedraggled Matt Damon but one seemingly unstarved for human contact and in perfect mental health. The director, working off of Drew Goddard's adaptation, appears unwilling to really point his film in one direction and dedicate his evocation to that experience, like Zemeckis does so well in Cast Away. The Martian is shot in rather subtle 3D that seems unnecessary considering the poignant capacity of the untouched Martian land, sprawling distance between the survivor and those at home, and in the cramped, astro-white quarters he is confined to with little complaint or trauma for over a year. In other words, this grandstanding, sincere but completely vanilla film felt entirely unnecessary.
The Martian's 3D was immediately put to shame in the next movie I saw, Fernando, and I know you feel the same way about it as I do because we ended up at the same screening of Johnnie To's 3D corporate musical, Office, without a doubt one of the best films of the year. I was about to describe it as “delightful” and indeed it started this way with a kinetic exuberance as it follows a young Hong Kong salesman on his first day into his corporate headquarters, but it takes little time for this director of the blistering capitalist critique of Life without Principle to turn the drama, the music and the energy towards the desperation and desolation engendered by Hong Kong's materialist corporate culture.
Yet the film is pure joy to look at, the sets (designed by Wong Kar-wai’s essential collaborator William Chang!) rendered as abstract stagecraft, a mix of Alain Resnais's last adaptations of Alan Ayckbourn plays, The Ladies Man, PlayTime and Tout va bien: gloriously exposed, wall-less offices lit by waves of neon matchsticks, the artifice of 1930s Hollywood brought into the sprawling false transparency of modern office architecture, prisons with the world's best windows. To's great photographic eye has a field day with the set's immense depth, layered wall framing and variegated lighting, each shot packed with people, shapes and fixtures, and along with the dextrous camera zipping one way or another Office features an eye-prickling dance of movement, line and space. The artifice of the production design combines with the 3D to further underscore the great talent of this Hong Kong "genre director" for the abstract play of the image not far away from the so-called experiments happening in the Wavelengths section of the festival.
But how can I forget the songs? Old school but a sharp mix of fun and critique, they score a script written by the great actress Sylvia Chang, who also stars among an ensemble as a tenacious CEO of the financial house at the center of Office's beating heart. (Well, not heart exactly but a giant spinning clock in the office's center, which tick-tocks away to the pulse of money, the overtime-overwork corporate culture, and the desperate hearts buried under all these workers' aspirations for wealth.) While catchy, the songs are playfully quite dark, none more so than a raucous, cynical afterwork drinking song dedicated to just how badly everyone wants to get rich and just how hard they'll work to get there. "Life is gambling," someone says, "what you get out depends on how much you put in"—the mantra of a group, a company, a financial structure dedicated to risk for the sake of luxury. "The borrowed desire is magnificent," belts out one particularly desperate corporate officer. (Unexpectedly, the film is set during the 2008 Lehman Brothers crisis.)
Love is sought in this system—"love is revolution!" the group sings—to relieve the tension of the struggle for wealth, but To and Chang depict the two as so intertwined that it is impossible to differentiate between love and greed, infidelity and crime. The film opens and closes on an EKG machine monitoring the life of the wife of the company's chairman (a lean, Mephistophelian Chow Yun-fat), stuck in a coma, we're told, because of her husband's infidelity and, implicitly, avarice. The old guard seems on the precipice of ruin or retirement, but don't worry, their style of company bosses is hardly going anywhere: Office shows their replacements being groomed, trained, tested and empowered to be the next generation of cutthroat financial leaders. The only improvement from those running the world now? At least these sing lovely songs, like the gangsters in Fritz Lang's You and Me.
I ended my first Friday of Toronto as I always must and do: the first program of short films in Wavelengths, a smartly curated collection, many on film, that began in the lite-brite pixelated haze of a rare (only?) 3D film by the great American avant-garde filmmaker Paul Sharits and from there pursued the simple but inexhaustible question of how a film takes form. For Sharits, it was a blizzard of dots, the grain, the emulsion, the pixels, the whatever-you-want-to-call-it but certainly the base texture of film itself variously dancing before and assaulting your optic nerve.
Kerstin Schroedinger’s Fugue pursued the question also in dance, but a dance of the body and of sound, calling back to Muybridge and early 20th century studies of human motion to perform a show of fluid, calligraphic movements against black backgrounds. The motion makes shapes and even sound, as Fugue’s soundtrack is made from the motion captured on the film. Brief excerpts of text are projected like silent title cards on the wall and body of the performer, obscuring hints of cryptic instructions for how to move. Next was a new film by Charlotte Pryce, whose few films I've seen are, like Prima Materia, delicate, pocket-sized wonders of spun light. With her latest celluloid wisp, she pulls light and its energy from the ether, drawing out shapes and coils of fine luminescence until it seems to birth light itself in pin-prick shavings of sparkle.
With movement and light the program has successfully conjured cinema, and so Benjamin Ramírez Pérez's A Fire In My Brain That Separates Us takes directly from the movies, pulling dialogue from Hollywood films about gaslighting and displays them as subtitles over images of a strange room, part haunted house, part performance space. In it, a wry ghostliness permeants, as objects move this way and that (pulled obviously by fishing line), lights dim and flicker, and we see empty images of a corner or a piece of furniture, and, gradually, a woman's hand, a woman's face, another's body, more women, a room full of women perhaps trapped perhaps in a dream perhaps in a nightmare perhaps in a film. The look reminded me of Jean-Claude Rousseau's interiors of gently humming mystery, but this "drama" most felt like that eerie house from Celine and Julie Go Boating, its inhabitants stuck in a loop of performance, of limited interactions with the stage and setting available, victims and participants in their own cinematic life.
The other brilliant 3D film today, Blake Williams' Something Horizontal (Williams wrote on 3D for the Notebook back in May), runs with the idea of exploring a room by chasing with roulette-like speed and wheeling spatial gymnastics the geometry of a confined space in the throbbing red-and-blue 3D of anaglyph: door, corner, window, door, wall, skylight, door, floor, ceiling, wall, ceiling. Not content with just this stunning, staccato hyper-cubist definition of space, Williams ingeniously injects title cards suggesting narrative ("Earlier," "Then...,") between scenes. With its opening prelude of a man being taken away on a gurney before we get tumbling vision of this super-charged room, I couldn't help but think of Dreyer giving us the radical point of view of a dead man in a coffin in Vampyr. The swarming room is followed by a twisting vortex up a flight of stairs and a surprising cut to footage from an old silent Kammerspiel, suggesting a slender but wrenchingly tortured tale of the mania, injury and swooning vision of a desperate soul.
But as Michael Sicinski has written on earlier, it is the clever vagueness of the title cards which suggest the flavor of Something Horizontal’s narrative, a lineage to the images, a logic. And perhaps there is even another direction to go: rather than understand this (perhaps) story as an order of events in time, we push into or claw out of the events in space, the assaulting anaglyph a vision not just of something taking place across the horizontal of time or the vertical of beauty but across the z-axis of...what?
You tell me, Fernando, since on this day you too entered into a three dimensional world.
Warmly,
Danny
rado
Great news about Office continuing on from Life without Principle, which was great. Sylvia Chang is also a excellent director.

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