For a better experience on MUBI, update your browser.

TIFF 2017. Correspondences #6

Reporting on Iannucci's "The Death of Stalin", Wenders' "Submergence" and Wilson and Leventhal's "Strangely Ordinary This Devotion".
Strangely Ordinary This Devotion
Hello Danny and Fern,
I'll start with personal news: the bad news is that I've had to significantly cut down my over-ambitious pre-TIFF schedule to recuperate from several days worth of sensory overload. The good news is that my ankle is healing!
Here is some bad TIFF news: for all I said in my last correspondence about contradictions, I wanted to add a belated disclaimer. Sometimes plot (and more importantly, thought) holes are nothing more than just that. Though it starts with a bang, former Veep show-runner Armando Iannucci's The Death of Stalin trips over its own footing with a flimsy jab at the legacy of its own subject, smugly presented as an original hot take.
In Iannucci's Communist Russia, the Soviet Union's top players are man-children with no backbone. Together, these bumbling idiots (played by a cast of stuttering, screaming Americans and Brits) mourn their Comrade while simultaneously forming the alliances that would hopefully secure their part in continuing (or disrupting) his legacy. Secret deals and awkward meetings take place in a grim, grey Moscow, where everyone—especially Jeffrey Tambor, as an insecure, centrist Georgy Malenkov—is ashy and worn down. Factual inconsistencies aside, The Death of Stalin's premise is too simple to sustain itself with substantial questions about the nature of authoritarianism. It also makes for some very cheap laughs that are most satisfactory when taken at face value. The film's punchlines range from Steve Buscemi's Nikita Khrushchev engaging in sassy banter, a puddle of Joseph Stalin's piss, and a threat of the Gulag to any unlucky bystander. But even while laughing, you can almost feel Iannucci and Co. breathing over your shoulder, hoping to "make you think." Not too different from the rest of today's extended universe of "shots fired" liberal media, The Death of Stalin's satirical bite has little longevity and potency.
At the very least, The Death of Stalin never hammers in what exactly you are supposed to think about, allowing sufficient distance for the audience to digest its ideas. Unfortunately, Wim Wenders's Submergence (an adaptation of the novel by J. M. Ledgard) not only explains its every metaphor (each of them oceanographic), but it also does so in the most aggressive and tasteless of ways. Within minutes, a budding romance between biomathematician Danielle Flinders (Alicia Vikander) and water engineer James Moore (James McAvoy) is cut short by faulty Internet connection. This tragedy stems from two very different forms of "submergence." Danielle descends to the ocean floor for a groundbreaking research project. (For most of the film's latter half, Vikander's only task is to emote through a tiny submarine window akin to Nastassja Kinski's sad booth in Paris, Texas [1984]). Meanwhile, James carries out a covert anti-Jihadist mission in Somalia and is taken hostage in a dark room. During their time of separation, neither partner knows if the other is still alive.
However annoying, the constant references to water are bearable when regarding a star-crossed long-distance relationship. Sadly, Wenders doesn't stop there. To critique Jihadism through the martyrdom of a Christian, British, soldier-turned-government agent who weeps while reading about terrorism in Europe already raises a huge red flag. But these suspicions are only confirmed when frontal shots of masked Somalians are paired with faux-philosophy regarding the "blackness" (yes, the word "blackness" is uttered several times) of the ocean's deepest parts, filled with danger and mystery. A blatantly racist device, Submergence's conflation of Africa and evil—its only salvageable parts the dying women and children—pushes Submergence's shot at humanism off the deep end, lodged somewhere alongside Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.
But there is good news: Fern, from your description alone I can tell that I'd witnessed a film with much more self-reflection and cutting beauty than mother! In less than a half hour, artists Sheilah Wilson and Dani Leventhal's short Strangely Ordinary This Devotion confronts constructs of the maternal through numerous imaginings of birthing, domesticity, and the guttural love that arises when a child is born. The subject of the devotion to which the title refers is Wilson and Leventhal's daughter, Rose. The young family's daily life is juxtaposed with surreal imagery that calls into question the contingency of the spaces that they occupy—as women, as lesbians, as mothers—and the bodies they possess.
Re-born as sensation over material, the womb is depicted as a gaping incision made across the surface of a woman's head, a gush of blood pushing through a body of water, a coil of seaweed rolled across a hardwood floor. Brakhage's Window Water Baby Moving (1958) comes to mind, but Wilson and Leventhal do not gawk at pregnancy or sink under the hand of a father figure, instead separating the mother from genitalia, genitalia from gender, gender from tradition, and tradition from form. Via the couple's television screen, the outside world is exchanged for an intimacy shaped by the self-assured androgyny of Prince's "I Would Die 4 U" ( "I am not a woman / I am not a man") and the amorous friction of Chantal Akerman's Je, tu, il, elle (1974). Though its many abstractions may extend beyond immediate comprehension, Strangely Ordinary This Devotion eschews the belief that clarity is honesty, that honesty must always be clear, and it elicits far more than one exclamation mark. (!!!)
Kelley

Please to add a new comment.

Previous Features