Everybody and their dog, it seems, feels this off imperative to try to identify common themes in the handful of festival films they (we) (I) see in a given year. It's the Ghost of Hegel, I suppose, demanding that we make sense of our times by referring to some Zeitgeist. (Zeitgeist? Isn't this just as likely to Strand the FilmsWeLike in some oh-so-precious Music Box, to be unearthed years later by members of some as-yet-unassembled Cinema Guild? But I digress.)
There may or may not be tendencies running through this year's feature selections, and if there are, that could have as much to do with the people who selected them than with any global mood. But there does seem to be a generalized turning-inward, with filmmakers making works about themselves and their immediate lives, the cinematic process, and the very complexities of communicating with other human beings. There are certainly major exceptions to this rule of introspection, most notably The Other Side and of course Arabian Nights, a film which is sort of exceptional in every way. Still, many of these films are asking very basic questions. How do we tell stories? How do we take stock of ourselves at a specific moment in time? How can movies move, when inertia is the fundamental state of all matter, including humanity itself?
With just one exception, all of the features selected for Wavelengths do merit their place in a festival section dedicated to formal and intellectual exploration. Even those films in this section that are relatively minor contributions to their makers' overall bodies of work are, I think, minor by design, and so well worth consideration even if they do not end up taking their place as enduring masterworks. And while certainly some films from other sections could just as easily have been in Wavelengths instead—Apichatpong's Cemetery of Splendour, for example, or Gabriel Mascaro's Neon Bull—only one film seems like an egregious omission, from Wavelengths and the festival overall. The absence of Benjamin Naishtat's El movimiento is perplexing, and a bit sad.
Now, as a great Arab-American disc jockey once said, on with the countdown.
88:88 (Isiah Medina, Canada)
If scheduling allows, please try to see 88:88 and Mark Lewis's Invention on the same day. Both works are examples of a relatively new conjuncture between HD cinema and video art, and of artists boldly working with the gestures and vocabularies of “experimental film,” historically understood, but in no way beholden to them. At the same time, the two films exemplify radically different and possibly complementary poles of this new media experience. Whereas Mark Lewis’s art is almost impossibly stately and austere, Isiah Medina uses an equal degree of precision to attack the screen with a barrage of images and ideas. If you have ever been in an argument, or a moment of panic, and desperately wished that you had more than one mouth, because you needed to say two or more things at the same time (saying them in sequence would inevitably lend devastating weight to whichever came first), you can begin to grasp the explosive yet meticulous audiovisual headspace of 88:88.
There are fragments of an ostensible narrative. Or perhaps it is better to say, there are figures whose affect and experiences we observe across the running time of Medina’s film. They bob in and out of our view—a coterie of young Filipino-Canadian friends and lovers, given to creativity and anger and philosophizing and confusion. But 88:88 does not adhere to any given point of view. It hangs out, but in a jittery, caffeinated way, holding onto present moments without deadening them into connective tissue, mere “moving-towards.” Or, if there is a point of view, it’s that of “the digital image,” which is indiscriminate and regards a private breakdown with the same impassive fascination it affords greenish-yellow light through a treetop. 88:88 is a young film about youth. Medina is aware of the traditions he’s engaging (Godard, Trecartin, and Raya Martin come to mind), but like so many other places his film fitfully stops, these figures are merely momentary flashpoints, orbiting the others with no impulse toward hierarchy. This is unbridled filmmaking, resoundingly alive.
Afternoon (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan)
Afternoon is a feature-length experimental film that could be taken as the most complex DVD extra ever made. But for devotees of Tsai and his onscreen alter ego, actor Lee Kang-sheng, the film is hypnotic, even as the perversity of its stasis prompts a viewer to wonder whether it has a trajectory or is simply going where it will. The film is essentially a two-hour-and-fifteen-minute conversation between Tsai and Lee, sitting together on a roof deck in the new mountainside home where Tsai and Lee cohabitate. Afternoon is shot in four or five takes, but the camera set-up never changes: two seated men in a dark space, light pouring in from a pair of windows behind them. On the left, behind Tsai, we see trees swaying in the distance. Behind Lee on the right, vines poke into the space, with other foliage in the middle distance.
Occasionally a boom mic or photographer’s arm peeks in to break up the composition, reminding us of the presence of off-screen space. This, along with the sharp color contrast, gives Afternoon a look that is very much Warhol-meets-Apichatpong. But the long, long conversation, which is dominated by Tsai (Lee doesn’t really speak for the first hour), is a different matter. One point of comparison would be Godard and Miéville’s Soft and Hard, since the main topic of the discussion is the pair’s career together and how it has affected their deep, almost Romantic friendship. Tsai speaks about his poor health, which affected his decision to retire. They joke with one another, which allows us the pleasure of hearing Tsai’s childlike giggle. But mostly Tsai uses the film to express his deep gratitude to Lee, not only for sticking by him through the years but for possessing the unique qualities that, from the director’s perspective, have made his kind of cinema possible. Afternoon is a reflection on and tribute to one of world cinema’s most enduring collaborations.
Arabian Nights (Miguel Gomes, Portugal / France / Germany / Switzerland)
Already quite possibly the most critically acclaimed film (or films) of the year, this expansive experimental blockbuster trilogy should already be on your radar as a must-see. Gomes is that rare auteur who can communicate righteous political anger with such humor and clarity that even his most strident agitprop comes off as the very model of civilized discourse. As he begins the first film, "The Restless One," with a bit of self-deprecating metacommentary about the untenable privilege of making such a film when Portugal is suffering (and to be honest, I believe Gomes's neurotic-director act must be a jab at Nanni Moretti), he explains his method: put things that are happening at the same time in the film alongside each other, hoping they will form a critique. The Scheherazade structure will be a clothesline of sorts, to permit multiple tales and formats to exist in one film, side by side. And so, "The Restless One" is an excoriating and often absurd docu-fiction about how EU-imposed austerity has actually affected ordinary Portuguese people.
I will update this post once I screen Arabian Nights Volumes Two and Three.
Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton (Guy Maddin, Evan Johnson and Galen Johnson, Canada)
Just over half an hour, so really neither a feature or a short, this highly improbable effort by Maddin and Co. has been relegated to a flatscreen in the lobby of the TIFF Bell Lightbox Theatre. By the same token, its inclusion in the festival at all is nothing short of a miracle, the sort of avant-garde infiltration that we will probably look back on years from now with equal parts wry amusement and awe, not unlike Duchamp's urinal. Ostensibly a behind-the-scenes look at the production of Paul Gross' medium-budget Canadian war film Hyena Road -- a Gala Presentation at this very festival -- Tim Horton is in fact a deconstruction of the very idea of the First World war movie, not to mention the very act of military adventurism Hyena Road is intended to valorize.
Inseparable from this project is the fact that for Paul Gross, best known to American audiences as the creator-star of the sitcom "Due South," Hyena Road is yet another part of his ongoing project of redeeming Canadian masculinity, something that Maddin and many others believe really doesn't need saving. As evidenced by his curling-based underdog sports comedy Men With Brooms, his Canadians-fight-WWI epic Passchendaele, and now Hyena Road (about Canadian troops in Afghanistan), Gross' definition of national pride seems to be based on terms established by Americans.
Whether or not Canadians could ever "measure up" is beside the point; Tim Horton wonders aloud, quite hilariously, whether they should. When Maddin, playing the bitter, under-funded art director baking in the Jordanian sun, refers to Gross as the "Great Canadian Populist," he is both telling a certain ugly truth and spitting the words out with delicious irony. This is the most Damon Packard-like film Maddin has ever made. The fact that the role of Spielberg is being played by Paul Gross kind of speaks for itself.
Eva Doesn’t Sleep (Pablo Agüero, France / Argentina / Spain)
Following Maidan, last year’s bulletin from Ukraine, Loznitsa returns to the found-footage format of such films as Blockade (2006) and Revue (2008). The Event is in many respects a logical follow-up to Maidan; attentive viewers will detect certain formal and ideological echoes. Centered on the military coup by Soviet hardliners that represented the last gasp of the U.S.S.R., The Event is composed of footage from independent filmmakers in the heart of what was Leningrad. We are witnessing seismic history from the street, and as with Maidan this means several things.
First, we are thrust into the middle of the crowd, buffeted about, and this often makes it difficult to get our bearings. This is entirely intentional, and goes hand in hand with the second element of The Event. We are witnessing confusion in action. “Is Gorbachev dead?” “Why is the TV only showing the Bolshoi Ballet?” “We have to seal the records,” etc. The situation is one of constant change, even as the Soviet coup leaders try in vain to establish normalcy. Granted, we know how the story ends. But Loznitsa’s editing and choice of material—passages separated by black leader and the main theme from Swan Lake—depict both the chaos and the raw power of mass demonstration, people gathering in the street to demand their rights. (And the demands themselves change. First it’s for the release of President Gorbachev from his mysterious house arrest, and then it’s for the end of Communism altogether.)
Of course, The Event is also a prelude to a tragedy, since we all know, and Loznitsa knows we know, that the bold experiment in Russian democracy ends with oligarchs and Gazprom and Old Vladimir What’s-His-Face. But given that The Event is organized as an image of honest, humble heroism, without a trace of irony, clearly Loznitsa is implying that it’s time to hit the streets again.
The Forbidden Room (Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson, Canada)
If The Forbidden Room represents Maddin’s most substantial triumph since The Heart of the World, this could be because the new film is both an inversion and an elaboration on the earlier film’s methods. Where Maddin took a single story (an vaguely Soviet apocalyptic sci-fi lark crisscrossed with a fraternal love triangle) in Heart and condensed it through split-second montage, propulsive music, and exhortative title cards, The Forbidden Room ambles and digresses. Where Godard told us that his Weekend (1968) was “a film adrift in the cosmos,” The Forbidden Room is a film lost inside itself, a mise-en-abyme nightmare of discursive misdirection. Whereas earlier Maddin films have been perhaps a bit too besotted with the syntax of early silent cinema, here we are lodged inside the labyrinthine problematics of folklore and exaggeration, a Winchester Mystery House of storytelling in which windows can overlook vertiginous hallways and staircases may lead nowhere.
The Forbidden Room does not precisely mirror this architecture. Not all of its narrative byways are “dead ends,” although a few of them (the “volcano of justice,” or really the entire tale of the saplingjack vs. the Red Wolves) remain doggedly unresolved. But there is much more going on with the film’s overall armature than simply a nesting “Dutch doll” recursivity or a follow-the-link hypertext model. The titular room, after all, is onboard a submarine, and inasmuch as there is primary story or “throughline” to this unruly work, it pertains to this submerged craft and the four doomed seamen stranded within it. They are running out of oxygen, and their deadly payload (“explosive jelly”) will detonate should they attempt to rise to the surface. So as they bicker, panic, and drift into delirium, they move through the sub in search of the missing captain, his quarters being both off-limits and, bizarrely, near impossible to find.
Although this film inevitably calls to mind the meta-fictional orchestrations of Borges or Calvino, such a comparison severely misrepresents the utter anarchy of Maddin’s film. (Much of this due to the painterly style of Room, no doubt largely attributable to visual-effects whiz Johnson. This deepens Maddin’s customary chiaroscuro, providing an almost Turneresque quality.) Like the men in the submarine, The Forbidden Room has an overall mood of anxiety and despair, in the sense that we are asked to grapple with its heady delirium of character trajectories and stunted arcs, all the while searching in vain for some absent center, the organizing “captain” who is supposed to pull it all together. In its endless ruptures and disconnections, The Forbidden Room brings us up short, placing us back in that capsule where the image is a form of confinement, a shortness of breath.
Invention (Mark Lewis, U.K. / Canada)
This is the first feature-length film by Lewis who, although now based in the U.K., remains one of the most important contemporary artists to have emerged from Canada in several decades. Considering the degree to which Lewis’s work has evolved over the years, noting its origins in the Vancouver art scene of the 80s and 90s can only go so far in explaining its conceptual moorings. Yet however inadequate such periodization may be, perhaps one way to consider Invention is as a kind of conceptual inverse to Jeff Wall’s photography. Where Wall halts human situations in order to imply missing narratives, Lewis moves through spaces across time, directing our attention to all the structural and atmospheric elements that surround and even engulf human activity.
What Invention asks us to attend to, for the most part, is the formal arrangement of built environments – Toronto modernism, the Louvre, and São Paolo’s uneven urbanism. Lewis has rather seamlessly edited together a number of individual films, and this speaks to the remarkable consistency of his aesthetic program. His slow-moving camera, observing with its smooth, mechanized eye, articulates the linear forms of buildings as they converse with their environment, or the manner in which a single detail from a Jacques-Louis David canvas radiates not only the compositional logic of the rest of the painting, but even its relationship to the other works around which the master curators of the Louvre have chosen to display it. The fact that Lewis has chosen to make so much of Invention silent only emphasizes the degree to which spatial and architectonic relationships are paramount in this film. Excess chatter would only distract us from seeing how things fit together.
Like few other contemporary artists, Lewis has worked for years with a media arts / gallery sensibility while exhibiting a deep knowledge of and respect for experimental cinema. Michael Snow’s work has long been axiomatic for Lewis, but if there is one dominant spirit animating Invention it’s Ernie Gehr. Certain passages seem to directly quote such key Gehr works as Shift and Side/Walk/Shuttle. These moments register as sly, even joyous homages, not second-rate duplications. This speaks to the rigor and intelligence of Mark Lewis’s filmmaking.
Lost and Beautiful (Pietro Marcello, Italy)
Marcello's cinema is employs a polyphonic approach to composition, not unlike Mikhail Bakhtin's characterization of novelistic discourse. It's a space where a number of seemingly unlike genres of representation can sit alongside one another, never fully resolved but mutually informing each other. In his previous works, such as 2009's La bocca del lupo and his 2011 documentary on Armenian filmmaker Artavazd Peleshian, Marcello tended to visualize this hybridity in a much more avant-garde manner, with different film stocks, colors and textures, emphasizing the collage-like aspect of his approach quite forcefully throughout. The resulting works were playful even when addressing serious topics, exhibiting a kind of magpie's sense of attention and collection that finally revealed themselves to be Cubist treatments of their subject matter, fractured but whole.
Lost and Beautiful represents a new approach for Marcello in that its overall surfaces are fairly consistent. It examines of the work of the shepherd Tomasso Cestrone who devoted his own time, effort and expense to protect the neglected Carditello Castle, in addition to maintaining his flock. A story of the resonance of history and folk culture in a nation whose official mandate both economic and cultural, has been to let the past crumble and distract itself with circuses and bread (or pasta and tits, as the case may be), Lost and Beautiful includes extensive interviews with Tomasso, documentation of his work on the castle, and patient footage of his care of farm animals. Much more so than Bocca del lupo, this film resembles portions of Michelangelo Frammartino's La quattro volte in its rigorous attention to the bucolic.
However, Cestrone passed away before the film's completion, prompting a new set of techniques. Marcello very matter-of-factly mixes in elements of the Commedia dell'arte, having a small colony of Pulcinellas lving nearby and one in particular (Gessuino Pittalis) come to the castle to collect a buffalo calf allegedly bequeathed to him by the late Tomasso. The calf provides the point of view for large sections of Lost and Beautiful; his thoughts are voiced by noted actor Elio Germano. There are no visual cues to distinguish the different registers of reality in Marcello's film. If anything, Pasolini's notion of "free indirect discourse" might be a helpful way to analyze just how the director negotiates between the seemingly incompatible modes of address. But what is ultimately important in this very odd film (one I need to see again to figure out, to be sure) is that a melánge of traditional Italian folkways serve as a vital current, one that can still be tapped into for both beauty and strength. And Marcello's experimental approach shows that tradition is not inherently conservative, particularly at a time when all connections to the past are being actively severed.
Minotaur (Nicolás Pereda, Mexico / Canada)
This latest curiosity from Pereda is a literal sleeper of a film, one whose overall objectives sneak up on you only after a half hour or more of committed languor. That’s to say, Minotaur sleeps furiously. The first part of the film entails halting movements around an apartment occupied by three young adults (Francisco Barreiro, Luisa Pardo, and Pereda regular Gabino Rodríguez). While the first is mainly absent, the other two are seen sleeping and reading. In fact, the omnipresence of books in this context is practically polemical, staking a claim for the continued relevance of dead-tree over the digital word.
Like several of Pereda’s peers—Albert Serra, Mathías Piñeiro, even Pedro Costa to an extent—he is concerned with literature and language for its own sake, as a material to shape and form in a post-Straubian way. But Minotaur takes this reduction almost to the limit. Much of the film is about hanging out in a nice bohemian space, being young and sitting with ideas. In fact, Minotaur has the feel of Laida Lertxundi’s work, except that where Pereda employs text, she uses music. In any case, by the film’s unexpected end, the body returns with a vengeance, rendering the life of the mind flaccid if not moot. (A certain visitor may be the cause of this, but we don’t know.) In any case, the “minotaur” of the title is of course purely symbolic, that deadly thing that eats you alive when you were just trying to find your way.
No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, Belgium)
To me, it has always seemed churlish and a little passive-aggressive for a critic to label a film “not for beginners,” but the god’s honest truth is, No Home Movie is not for beginners. It’s not just that Akerman’s latest is a challenging piece of cinema, although it certainly is that in several respects. It is probably both Akerman’s most openly autobiographical work. (It is an extended portrait of the filmmaker’s mother Natalia, in the period just prior to her death.) It is also Akerman’s most formally neutral work, at least on the surface—long takes with a digital camera, Mrs. Akerman puttering around her apartment, eating cereal, discussing 1939 for Belgian Jews—all shot with the uninflected impassivity of a camera set on a nearby shelf, still running and forgotten.
So in these important respects, the ideal viewer of No Home Movie already cares at least somewhat about Akerman as an artist and thinker, and is capable of seeing some of the extremely subtle aspects of No Home Movie that, to most people, are barely there. Most obviously, this is a late work, with all that entails. The static camera has meaning because it is Akerman’s static camera, and so an unmoving, low-angle scene between Chantal and Natalia in a green-tiled kitchen inevitably harks back to Jeanne Dielman and, by extension, the way the filmmaker conceived of domestic confinement as a younger woman. Natalia’s speech, her redundancies and refusals to comprehend some familial truths, all refer us back to the letters in News From Home, and we think about how the dynamic between these now much older women has changed, and has not.
But we are also expected to think about technology, how Akerman uses not only ugly, blown-out digital video but also Skype calls on her laptop as a means of (re)producing her mother’s voice and image. The older woman’s image has degraded as she has gotten older, even though the means of communication have ostensibly gotten better. (The “improvement” over film is instantaneity, not beauty.) Akerman also asks us to consider the contrast between her own highly mobile world and the relative confinement of her mother, who not only stayed at home due to her age but also suffered from anxiety disorder. (How or whether this is connected to Natalia having been a Holocaust survivor is not explored, but it is certainly not refuted.) So Akerman’s lengthy landscape shots of Israel contrast with the small, private Jewishness that the apartment permits her mother. In fact, these shots could be symbolic of the larger world that Akerman’s mother carried within her, the knowledge and experience belied by her diminished later life. Israel, after all, was intended to be the homeland for a people perpetually displaced and nomadic. Akerman’s view of home, the desire for a place to finally stop moving, is obviously deeply ambivalent, but well understood. It’s this desire, something she can only partially share, to which No Home Movie pays homage.
The Other Side (Roberto Minervini, France / Italy)
Sorry, sports fans: this is the film I simply couldn't finish. (I made it to the 40-minute point, when Mark is preparing to shoot meth into Lisa's right breast.) Werner Herzog once remarked that "the poet must not avert his eyes." I can only conclude that I am not a poet, which should come as a surprise to no one. Let it be said, I admire Minervini's project, examining the lives of poor Louisiana "white trash," those forgotten Americans who cook meth, get their electricity cut off, and routinely call President Obama the N-word. But at a certain point it simply wasn't edifying for me as a viewer or critic to keep subjecting myself to the unremitting ugliness of their lives, or this film. Granted, it's partly personal. I'm only one generation removed from the Texas redneck gene pool myself, so nothing Minervini discovers is news to me. But there's only so much self-destruction I can watch and be expected to regard it as a cinematic object. Single worst moment I saw: when Mark's niece Brooke, an aspiring fashion designer who practices on her Monster High dolls, mentions that she'd like to attend "either Harvard or Yale." A document of horror and despair.
Saint Teresa and Other Stories (Nelson Carlo de los Santos Arias, Mexico / Dominican Republic / U.S.)
This 60-minute work is a compendium piece, based on multiple chapters in the late Chilean author Roberto Bolaño's novel 2666, and as such it is somewhat uneven. A primary visual and thematic fixation for de los Santos is Catholic imagery, particularly the manner in which church interiors and religious objects of worship take on a different inflection when presented within the vernacular of avant-garde filmmaking. Using low-light conditions, end flares, flash frames, and other Brakhage-like modes of cinematic address, traditional iconography becomes both aestheticized and distorted.
As a narrative project, however, some segments are more fully realized than others. The "church defiler" sequence, the film's centerpiece, is notable for the disjunction between the narration and the visuals. For such a dramatic event, very little happens onscreen. Similarly, the tale about the town of Santa Teresa being an "easy place to die" is accompanied by a gorgeous, meticulously edited land-and-skyscape. Santa Teresa and Other Stories is an interesting if not altogether successful experiment in creative adaptation, its uneven quality perhaps giving the sense that de los Santos could have made a shorter, tighter film.
Sector IX B (Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc, France / Senegal)
Or, Taking Drugs to Make Artifacts to Take Drugs To. This intellectually dense featurette by Senegalese artist Abonnenc could serve as more poetic, elliptical cousin to Marker and Resnais's Statues Also Die, or a companion piece to Duncan Campbell's recent exploration of that film, It For Others. But even though these films share some basic subject matter, Abonnenc's treatment is decidely postmodern as well as being post-colonial, taking a key text from the margins of the Western tradition —Michel Leiris's Phantom Africa—and using it to speak back from the position of the "non-existent" Other.
The film follows the working process of a scholar (Betty Tchomanga) who is studying Leiris's work and researching at the IFAN Museum in Dakar. Leiris, a Surrealist anthropologist who favored open subjectivity and even recommended hallucinogenic drug use while in the field, draws Betty to the various African treasures in the collection, and we see her downing mysterious black pills at various points in her studies. (A black beetle lives in her pill case; it may be a component in Betty's psychedelic mix, but we don't know.) Abonnenc shows Betty having sensual experiences with various objects, feeling them erotically and, in a coup de théâtre, they feel her in return. This dark, almost Apichatpong-like junglescape of the mind is in dramatic contrast to the clean, antiseptic shelving and taxonomy of the museum. Eventually Betty finds she cannot sustain this demanding approach to anthropological exploration. But Abonnenc shows that, whatever colonialist overtones existed and remain in Leiris's system of compromised knowledge, an altered engagement of some sort is required in order to defeat the clinical entombment of the museum. These objects exhibit life, and to some form of life they must return.
The Sky Trembles and the Earth is Afraid and the Two Eyes Are Not Brothers (Ben Rivers, U.K.)
The latest from Ben Rivers (Two Years at Sea, A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness) is a fascinating shapeshifter from Morocco, with two halves that are joined by a sort of bleeding, amorphous middle passage. At the start of the film we are, or appear to be, watching as filmmaker Oliver Laxe (You Are All Captains) shoots a new film. What Rivers shows us in these passages is the precarious line between documentary or ethnographic cinema and staged behavior. Moroccan performers in traditional ethnic dress are shown trudging up rocky hills and exclaiming "the sheikh is gone," or crossing the desert very deliberately. And in the midst of these scenes, we observe Laxe and his crew setting up shots, trudging along with the actors and horses, or see the performers joking around or asking questions about line readings. By extension, the making-of material that we are viewing—that is, Rivers' film—must also come under scrutiny, since nothing we see on film can or should be taken for granted.
After a lengthy, wordless sequence during which Laxe drives across the desert in his SUV (to arrive at a location called Desert Hotel), things shift. This extended material calls to mind similar sequences in Kiarostami films, but more generally, we think of the lost, soulful Westerner employing the landscape of the "Orient" (or Africa, in this particular case) to find himself. (The Sky Trembles . . . is based in part on a short story by Paul Bowles.) To say that things turn out differently for Laxe's director character is an understatement. As the kids say, shit gets real, and Rivers creates a tragicomic situation designed to turn an entire 18th - 19th century colonial history on its head. A film that recalls such meta-cinematic forebears as Werner Herzog, Dennis Hopper, and Antonioni, The Sky Trembles . . . lands up not so subtly in Tod Browning territory, and it's hard not to wonder if Laxe and Rivers are pouring one out in memory of Saartjie Baartman.