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TIFF 2017. Correspondences #12

Two great anti-consumption short films—by American Sara Cwynar and Polish Wojciech Bąkowski—and Louis C.K.'s "I Love You Daddy".
I Love You Daddy
Dear Fern,
In my last letter I wrote to you and Kelley of the highly stylized provocation of Caniba. Well, I found another but far better showboating film in Toronto's Wavelengths program, one that also precariously extends the reach of its subject to the film’s form itself. Sara Cwynar’s exuberantly candied short Rose Gold, spawned from a fascination with the titular color of a new (now old) iPhone, extracts ideas and images from this conflation of commerce and metallurgic hue to ricochet around a tart, constantly erupting quasi-encyclopedia on the subject. By turns burrowing and dodging, distracted, Godard-like, with overlapping and interrupting quotes and observations, its cacophony of objects, citations, and pastel colors makes it easy to take Rose Gold as its own pop consumer item for the hip set, Instagram-ready and already halfway to being printed on limited edition tote bags.
The range of Cwynar’s film is impressive, even if its critique is, in the film’s antic distractibility, skimming and wry rather than penetrating. It's impossible not to like a film connecting the history of Melomine dishware, the color of telephones, Oskar J.W. Hansen’s deco sculptures at the Hoover Dam (for some reason), the shopping bags of designer label Acne, and Wittgenstein with a vibrancy and enthusiastic energy channeling (rather than skeptical towards) the thrilling aesthetics of commerce, as kitschy now as mid-century communism. Bracing and vaguely suspicious in it a confidence and youthfulness, Rose Gold often feels like an over-eager but brilliant new student at a graduate seminar—overreaching but thrilling to encounter. Ultimately, what makes Cwynar’s film so winning, beyond the quick prancing of its surface and fun pin-prick criticisms, is that even in its short runtime it is bountiful and very generous to the audience, giving so much to twinkle the eye and spark the brain.
Wojciech Bąkowski’s Yeti, an ugly child outlier among the more conventionally beautiful Wavelengths shorts, takes the opposite approach with its critique. It was shot on the Polish poet/animator/filmmaker’s mediocre Nokia phone, a fact I know because on nearly each shot of Yeti the artist overlays a shabby photograph of some component contained in that scene—ultimately listing all these parts in the final credits. The phone is one, as are the Levi's worn in one shot, the motion sensor of Bąkowski’s building, a single Red Wing shoe, and an image of a streetcar we hear outside the window of his flat. For the most part, the shots themselves are of the artist performing a kind of stuck, repetitive action, stepping up and down a staircase, tapping his head against the wall, these kinds of things—banal actions of everyday life brusquely thwarted, estranged, put on loop. The extraction of some of each shot’s ‘contents’ suggests at once a cataloging of the unnoticed matter of existence, and also, more metaphysically, some bizarre connection with Bąkowski’s dysfunctional behavior, as if spawned by these seemingly innocuous consumer goods and surrounding technology. Yeti, unlike Rose Gold, portrays the life and lifestyle of the everyday as discomfiting and perhaps even perverse. Its skepticism, grounded by a bone-dry dark humor and genuinely bizarre approach blending drab performance art, bad video effects and great new wave music (a reliable staple for this director), flatters nothing and no one, and for some unquantifiable reason is all the more charming for it.
Speaking of the discomfiting and perverse details of everyday existence, Louis C.K. has a new movie! If five seasons of starring in, writing, directing and editing his terrific TV show Louie were not proof that the comedian is one of the sharpest and most free artists working in America, this under-recognized status was confirmed by last year’s surprise direct-to-his-website 10-part tragicomic miniseries Horace and Pete, anachronistically inspired by sitcoms of the 80s and live television dramas of the 50s. I Love You, Daddy, C.K.’s new feature film, premiering in Toronto and also shot and announced as a surprise, is the darkly comic, boldly confident, and consciously awkward gesture of an artist who is admirably taking full advantage his success to try new and unexpected things.
Shot in beautifully contrast-heavy black and white 35mm (by Paul Koestner, who shot Louie and Horace and Pete on video), it stars—no surprise here—Louis as another minor variation on his dramatic persona: schlubby-normal-guy, yet kind of a piece of shit; seemingly liberal, yet ultimately conservative; warm and friendly, yet self-disgusted; and always, in the end, sheepishly endearing. Riffing, as in Louie, off his own life and status, C.K. plays Glen, a divorcee and successful television showrunner in the midst of a mediocre project. Glen is distracted by the beauty of Grace (Rose Byrne), a big movie star who venerates his writing, but above all he is frustrated and fearing the aimless lifestyle and imagined sex life of his stunning 17-year-old daughter, China (Chloë Grace Moretz). These disparate worries of a wealthy, middle-aged white man coalesce in the figure of Leslie Goodwin (a hilariously aloof, sagacious, and fully-goateed John Malkovich), a famous movie director venerated by Glen but dogged by rumors of perversions and ‘liking young girls.’ Of course, China falls for the older man, Glen and Grace debate the age of consent and how seriously one should take horrible but unproven accusations, and the whole thing swirls with a parent’s fears of their kids growing up, the mediocrity and worries of middle-age, the promise of new love and related fixations, and the pervasive possibility of perverse desire. (The film's premiere notably comes at a time of renewed accusations of Louis C.K. sexually harassing actresses.)
Uneven possibly by design, I Love You, Daddy is another field of play and experimentation for the director. C.K. sometimes shoots scenes with a crawling sitcom-style camera, sometimes in luminous old Hollywood close-ups (the film's credits mimic the style of the 1930s), and sometimes makes jokes with the widescreen frame (there’s an amazing gag with Charlie Day, playing Glen’s fawning hanger-on, who at the first mention of Grace mock masturbates to completion at the screen’s far edge). Mostly, I Love You, Daddy has a wandering, unpredictable camera following loose dialogue scenes one moment and then counters them with sharper, more precisely cut conversations the next. There's even a fabulous application of that favorite Brian De Palma tool, the split diopter, which C.K. uses exceedingly cleverly when China tells her dad about a run-in with a lascivious Leslie “in the girls’ shorts department of Barney’s,” where the film cuts across perpendicular angles to accentuate the father’s astonishment, the suddenly empowered, storytelling daughter, and the conversation’s moral disorientation.
Whether directing an anything-can-happen episode of Louie or the baffling challenge of evolving old school conventions with Horace and Pete, Louis C.K. is obviously one of the few American directors unafraid of dramatic discomfiture or formal risk. I Love You, Daddy is another example of how C.K. is willing to play with different styles and approaches to bring out each scene of his drama's tilted humor, heap of abuses—usually directed at C.K. himself—and perhaps above all, bring out the best in his actors. For across the comic's two shows and this film, what is most pleasurable is the attention given, from bit part and supporting role to co-star, to the actors in his comedies: Moretz here is individual and vivid, Malkovich a perfect satire, Byrne exhibiting a lovely elegance, and the ensemble is rounded out by ball-breaking roles by Pamela Adlon and Edie Falco, whose characters are quasi-reprisals from past C.K. projects (Louie and Horace and Pete, respectively).
Swaddled in swoony, affectionately ironic big band orchestral music, the whole picture feels off-kilter, a bit of one thing and a bit of another: skewering its protagonist in one scene, giving him the warm-hearted benefit of the doubt in the next. I Love You, Daddy has all of the attributes found in the great comic’s work he’s directed over the last decade: vulgar everyday subjects, a mix of disarming offhandedness, boorish moral lecturing eventually cut down to size, improvised humor, formal nonchalance, minor physical gags, and sentiment spiked by fucked-up-ness. All of this belies the weight, both comic and moral, of the slow, elaborate, and imminently amusing project of C.K. to consistently poke, flatter and prod his worries as a white man, a pervert, a divorcee, and father, as he has aged into his financially lucrative middle years. I don’t really understand what this film is—it’s not C.K. riffing off Woody Allen, nor is it an extended episode of Louie—except that is a terrific lark, and a very free one at that, about what it means to be mature—or not.
And on that self-depreciating note—until next year's TIFF!
Warmly,
Danny

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