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TIFF 2016. Correspondences #10

We wrap our Toronto film festival coverage with a look at favorite short films and the festival's unique installations.
AS WITHOUT SO WITHIN
Dear Fern,
"Risky" festival choices can take all sorts of forms, whether betting on first time filmmakers (Hello Destroyer, which you rightly praised, and Ashley McKenzie's promising, incredibly compassionate debut Werewolf), or hoping that something as potentially goofy as Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids might just be something special. (Judging by both our responses, it very much was—in fact, it's one of the best films of the year.) Still, I encourage you to come to Wavelengths with me—it's bliss!
While much of the festival area here in Toronto is fairly condensed, which finds us sprinting across a multiplex with mere minutes between screenings or from one venue to another but a few blocks away—these being press and industry timeslots; the public ones are spread around a bit more—I had the pleasure to discover more of our host city by tracking down several film installations being exhibited in conjunction with TIFF. But before I get to those, let me begin highlighting some of my favorite short films I've seen here.
I greatly enjoyed many of the short films in the already-praised Wavelengths programs, but since Michael has written on almost all of them, let me just wax lyrical about what I feel is the best film at the festival by far, Manuela De Laborde's AS WITHOUT SO WITHIN. An utterly remarkably, vividly calm work, it blends sculpture and filmmaking into a cosmic exploration of physical material transformed by the flatness of the cinema screen. Using ingenious objects made by De Laborde that variously resemble moon rocks, bones, and additional unidentifiable shapes, and by filming them against black backgrounds, awash in precise lighting and at different scales, these strange pieces loom or are dwarfed, come into or go out of focus and perceptibility. Sometimes the film feels like a kind of astronomic research report, tactile and scientific in its observation, even seemingly scanning or plunging deep the molecular makeup of these evocatively recognizable, yet alien shapes. At other times, they all out of legibility and we no longer know if we’re looking up close or afar, if we’re studying a held object or if we’re indeed floating in space—or even if there is any object at all. This wonder was 25 minutes long and I wanted it to keep going on and on, forever studying its innumerable finds, the soundtrack of space static thrumming, and each object’s beguiling light-and-shadow energies always warping before us the subject of our curious vision.
Along with two shorts by Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta from the 1970s, the other revival shown in Wavelengths is a strange kind of old-new film: a fragment of alternate takes of the finale to Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s 2003 short, Umiliati, which is based on Sicilian author Elio Vittorini’s The Woman of Messina. It was not uncommon for this filmmaking duo to release “alternate” versions of their films, especially shorts, that use other camera takes featuring different intonation—since they put so much emphasis on the aural power and weight of their adapted words—and subtly different details in mise en scène, like the play of shadow and light or the direct sound, recorded on location. Incantati, as this “new” short is called, is remarkably self-sufficient in its condensed simplicity and directness. A woman answers a knock on her door and finds a neighbor exclaiming that many of the men in their community have left to look for work in Medina, which they say promises more prosperity. The sense of abandonment from this bare shot of a silhouette in the doorway is all the more abrupt because we haven’t seen the full story that’s come before—not having seen Umiliati myself. The next scene has the woman, shown in strong, confrontational profile, informing her husband, who lays despondent on their bed, that the men have left. Sitting up briefly, he laments that there's nothing for him to say—nothing—and he falls back, one foot on the floor, the other on the bed, poised in partial inaction. The final shot is of the woman now outside, curled with statuesque firmness in her doorway. She exclaims and the camera pans down to the street, suggesting the path taken away from them, the community dissolving for the speculative promise of the city. It's a shear and forceful evocation of dissolution, of forlorn acquiescence and of strong anger.
Straub-Huillet's film may be small, but even more quiet and modest is Antoinette Zwirchmayr’s Venus Delta. It is a beguiling little filmic poem of but a few things: silence, the sculptural curves of river-wrought stone, the gully’s stream that weaves through it, and the film’s two surreal, mythic objects, three colored globes, perhaps grapefruits, and a woman’s beautiful, bountiful hair draped on the stone so that we only see the curls and no bodies. It begins with just the water and stone, before the apparition of a nest of hair with a sphere by its side. A single shot shows the woman leaned against a nude man before we return again to her hair, the rocks. Graceful cutting introduces these apparitions, expands the landscape’s lovely shape (this primordial watery origin is akin to King Hu’s river scene in Dragon Inn or where Anthony Mann culminates The Naked Spur). The final shot leaves the woman, preferring instead the three fruits, sweetly rolling down the stream out into the world.
As you know Fernando, I have a profound dedication to the short films in Toronto’s invigorating Wavelengths section (in fact, it's the main reason I find the festival experience so essential), but I always unintentionally neglect TIFF's Short Cuts strand dedicated to—yes—shorts. I sought it out this year because I spied Chinese master Jia Zhangke—who was here last year with his epoch-spanning melodrama Mountains May Depart—had a new short film. And what a pleasure it is! The Hedonists is this elegant director in comic mode, believe it or not. The 26-minute short is a wicked satire beginning with three middle-aged men in Jia’s hometown of Fenyang getting laid off from their jobs at the local mining operation (one’s a miner, one a security guard who sleeps more than watches, and the other, played by Jia regular Han Sanming, is a kitchen worker).
Jia treats each firing as dryly ironic rather than tragic, and like some silent comedy the three decide to team up to apply for different jobs. At the first, though declared “too old” for the work, they are told wrestle each other to audition to be a bodyguard for a local magnate (played by Jia in a reprise of his cigar-chomping millionaire cameo from A Touch of Sin). Not getting that choice position, they next try out for a cultural folklore troupe staging costumed reenactments in the town’s newly developed historical reconstruction. Only, one man shows up smoking a cigarette (the same reason he was fired from his kitchen job), another complains vocally that everyone is in Qing dynasty costumes and not in the proper Ming dynasty ones, and the last plays the emperor as smiling: “How do you know he didn’t, were you there?” Suffice to say, they are fired again. Co-written by the director’s wife and muse Zhao Tao (is all this outright comedy her touch?), the film also surprisingly utilizes drone cinematography to awkward but ambitious effect, enabling Jia’s characteristically gliding long takes to “crane” to impossible heights, framing the trio’s fights or their historical mishaps from a soaring vista.
Finally, to the festival's exhibitions. Wavelength's consistently risk-taking and rewarding section continues its great initiative of understanding film as both taking place in the cinema and out of it. One piece overlapped this notion, Cyprien Gaillard’s Nightlife, a 15-minute 3D work that was shown four times in a row in a large cinema in TIFF’s luxurious Lightbox—the avant-garde and unconventional briefly taking over a space used mostly for much different kinds of movies. It begins with its 3D camera circling around Cleveland’s hobbled replica of The Thinker, its pose undercut, literally, by its exploded ankles (courtesy of an attack by the Weather Underground) in bronze, and the soundtrack fills the space: a dub track that loops an Alton Ellis sample lamenting I was born a loser. From this contemplation Nightlife shifts into a dancing music video, except the dancers are pieces of foliage large and small: giant leafy branches like anemone spotlit in the night waving their tendrils to the music, birds of paradise bobbing in the wind, leaf paddles rippling under red and blue lights. Often awkwardly edited as so much video art, which can focus on the concept of the shot and not what connects one to the next, the film culminates in an elegant drone flight (drones again! Also to be found in Werner Herzog's Salt and Fire and Into the Inferno and Serra's Singularity) through a fireworks show—keep in mind this is in 3D! Finally, the warbling, hypnotic soundtrack of this pulsing and often joyful nocturnal dance film shifts: I was born a winner.
Nearby the Lightbox was an exhibition dedicated to Ana Mendieta. Not traditionally seen as a filmmaker, it turned out that this fiercely feminist artist documented in 8 mm many of her site-specific pieces. These have all recently been digitally scanned and restored and Wavelengths showed two of the modest but starkly expansive miniatures (they seem to last the length of an 8 mm reel) in its first shorts program. Toronto’s CONTACT Gallery is projecting on loop one of these plus five others, most from Mendieta’s siluetas (“silhouettes”) series, which are records of sculptures in the landscape in the shape of the artist’s body variously lit up, destroyed, or run over. One such body is seen hollowed out and filled with paper that is then burned; another has Mendieta laying nude, face down, in a stream in one unbroken shot, and another has a body-shaped mound of charcoal-colored mud sparkling with firecrackers. The only non-silueta explores similar ground: a small volcano, looking like a larger, plein air version of schoolchildren’s baking-soda-and-vinegar science experiments, erupts, filling its crevasse, before the filling material dissipates, scarring the woman-made mound. The films are accompanied by two sets of the artist’s photographs, one created from shooting this volcano object, and the other a wonderful black and white series of this woman’s body dug into beach sand and variously filled and streaked by in- and outgoing tides.
Singularity
Albert Serra’s feature films are often confrontationally intimate—indeed, his great feature at the festival, The Death of Louis XIV, spends nearly its whole story in the bedroom of a dying king—but his grandiose installation at the festival, Singularity, transforms and audaciously expands this scale. The series programmer remarked at the gallery opening that it was commissioned for the Venice Biennale and that such artwork done even by acclaimed filmmakers like Serra rarely interacts with film festival culture, instead remaining circulating in the art world. Singularity ran for but a week in Toronto, so hopefully you and others were lucky enough to catch it. The exhibition is itself immense: four screens each showing a unique three hour loop, plus a fifth screen showing a 5 minute introduction.The screens are placed such that it is impossible to watch all of them at once, which makes a fastidious appreciation of Singularity clock in at over twelve hours.
The scope of the story is ambitious too, a saga of a gold prospector in some indeterminate time period that seems like the 19th century or today, building a mine that expands to encompass turning the female miners into prostitutes at a new brothel. The narrative expands and contracts like an accordion of laconic, lengthy conversations that circle and repeat, taking place in gorgeous untouched landscapes, a pub, the miners' homes, the brothel, the mine, and between characters whose identities seem to morph, merge, remain vague: owners, workers, women, lovers, artists, and rapscallions. It reminded me of a minimalist, sprawling but interior adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel of a fallen El Dorado, Nostromo, only with greater accentuation on the tie between industrial and sexual exploitation. Serra’s digital lighting is always a beauty to behold, but the real surprise was a beaming tenderness between the director’s two repeat actors, Lluís Carbó and Lluís Serrat, who are a couple in the film (which emphasizes homosexual relationships and makes much of the languid and loquacious debates feel like Fassbinder). Considerable time is devoted to this most incongruous couple laying down unclothed in bed, reading, chatting, caressing—sequences for the most part stripped of the greater conceptual project (meanwhile, on other screens, a prostitute confesses to a priest played by Serra, deals about mining and the brothel are being hashed out). These long moments are tenderly devoted to a serene love in body and spirit. Watching them together was all the more touching because Carbó, the older actor who played Quixote (to Serrat's Sancho) in Serra’s 2006 adaptation, died two weeks ago.
The final Wavelengths installation I caught was experimental filmmaker Sharon Lockhart’s Rudzienko, a 40-something minute film, showing on loop in an impressive floor-to-ceiling projection. Continuing the filmmaker’s collaboration with delinquent Polish teenagers begun with Podwórka (2009), this new work intersperses a series of exquisitely framed rural landscapes punctuated by dynamic movement (dancing, kite-flying) or the sudden appearance of the girls, with scrolling white text on black background translating collaboratively written dialog between the teens, as well as a number of other variations on this kind of posed-yet-playful use of locations in and around the eponymous Polish town. While not all of the “actions,” if I may call them that, work equally well, these filmed parts are evocatively brought into sharp context and juxtaposition by the imaginatively conceived use of translated Polish, showing the girls’ concerns ranging from bantering chit-chat to dark, personal revelations (all of the girls are from one particular school for delinquent kids). Lockhart’s landscape photography is stoic, stunning and impressively vertical; its engagement by her actors a touching combination of guileless pleasure, laconic existence, and poised presentation. I will especially take away with me two scenes: one a backlit hilltop with bursting trees and a couple of kids along the ridge, silhouetted on the mount by the darkening day; the other, a shot like a silent cinema gag starting with a girl leaping across a river and her friend too uncertain whether to follow. The hesitant one breaks into forced, nervous giggles as her friend teases her off-camera, the social dynamic plain yet subtle, and the comic expectation and suspense a delight.
And now, after walking around Toronto this way and that over the last ten days in weather alternatively stifling, drenching, sunny and beautiful in order to watch a terrific number of movies and to find all these festival installations, it is time for me to head back to New York. Thank you for another wonderful year of cine-letters, Fernando—and 2017 can't come soon enough!
Warmly,
Danny

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