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Toronto Correspondences #4: The Momentous and the Micro

Our critical dispatches from TIFF continues with “The Painted Bird,” and films by Zacharias Kunuk, Josef Dabernig & Jessica Sarah Rinland.
The Notebook is covering TIFF with an on-going correspondence between critics Fernando F. CroceKelley Dong, and editor Daniel Kasman.
The Painted Bird
Dear Kelley and Fern,
Leonardo has already written on Václav Marhoul’s sprawling and undeniably uncomfortable The Painted Bird, but since I know neither of you are seeing it, I wanted to expand a bit more on this picaresque of human suffering. Based on the 1965 novel by Polish writer Jerzy Kosiński (who also wrote Being There), it episodically shuttles an orphaned boy from person to person around an unnamed Eastern European countryside of such provincial poverty it might as well be pre-industrial. We see a Luftwaffe scout plane early on, yet the deliberately measured effect of Marhoul’s decidedly relaxed storytelling is that of slowly pushing this boy from an older, nearly medieval past of superstition, into a Christian community, then into the Second War World and a key post-war coda. To what end? To showcase a cruel, reactionary, and malevolent human world that projects fear and desire and heaps abuse on the cipher-like, nearly mute boy. That the child never really looks worse for the wear despite beatings, starvation, rape, and proximity to multiple murders, and that he never seems to really learn or change throughout the experience, underscores Marhoul’s allegorical motivation. This is not a Cheang Soi-style tale of animal-like survival.  Rather, the lesson is that no one is safe from the ill will of men. There are few surprises in this film; when a pet animal is burnt by malicious peasant boys in the opening scene, we know we’re in for two and a half hours of the  worst possible treatment of animals and people by other people. Along with most psychology, motivation is also purposefully nixed: The German invaders have little more ideological reasons for their violence than a later sexual abuser in a village does—all seem equally desirous to harm an innocent and vulnerable outcast. Analysis is not the film’s goal, but rather the path through life hoping for better things and invariably finding exploitation. An invocation of the Holocaust in the film’s final scenes suggest our boy’s travails have been in tandem with, stood in place of, or otherwise filled an imaginative gap of unseen horrors. Still, the locus around the war is an extra kicker not required; The Painted Bird is a condemnation of most of humanity at large rather than of a unique historical instance. 
Above all, and this may be pure nostalgia on my part, it was very enjoyable even within all the degradation to see a movie that harkens back to the modernist art cinema of 1960s Eastern Europe, the cinema of Miklós Jancsó, Wojciech Has, and Jerzy Kawalerowicz that has fallen far out of fashion as people have become more used to the limited scale of television. The Painted Bird, though hardly as good as the best by those artists, follows in their footsteps with no sense of pastiche or regurgitation. The canvas of images is broad, we travel from large landscape to large landscape in which humans are frequently dwarfed; when they’re not, huge faces fill the screen, including modern actors who might have fit well in that era (Udo Kier, Stellan Skarsgård, Harvey Keitel, Barry Pepper). The camera moves frequently but deliberately, reminding us we’re watching a movie; it moves on tracks, dollies, and frequently cranes. I miss these things in cinema, especially when done without guile but rather knowing the effect they can have, the way they shift the idiom of cinematic storytelling, create or dispel suspense, and carve out the metaphysics that determine what is allowed or not in this fictional story. A relaxed narrative, not unlike  Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, the filmmaker here gives you time to wander in the film world, ponder its excess and limitations. I would hardly endorse the film as excellent, but it more than provided more food for thought.
One of the most impressive things about The Painted Bird is the sheer scale of production, and the scope to which this allows the filmmaker to extend. I wish that Zacharias Kunuk, the Canadian Inuk filmmaker best known for Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001), was consistently allowed such resources. His last feature, Maligluitit (Searchers), a quasi-remake of John Ford’s film among the Inuit community, and his new drama at TIFF, One Day in the Life of Noah Piugattuk, suggest epic storytelling that is not allowed with the funds provided. This new film, for example, is centered on a seemingly momentous meeting in 1961, between the titular Kunuk elder (Apayata Kotierk) and a Canadian government representative (Kim Bodnia) who has been tasked with moving Piugattuk’s community to permanent settlements off the ice. The collision evokes the end of an era, the last gasp of indigenous culture and freedom in the face of force governance by Canada, yet Kunuk boldly envisions this clash as, essentially, an hour-long conversation, awkwardly relayed via an imperfect translator, interrupting an afternoon seal hunt.
After offering fresh supplies of biscuits, jam, and tobacco, the “meeting” takes place in the icy abstraction of the arctic. Lurching and disconnected, the communication between these two modest representatives of larger concerns and, symbolically, immense importance, is at once played for laughs and for tragedy. We know—and can sense—the inevitability of so-called progress. The government is completely unable to sell its idea or connect on a human level with the people whose lives they will be irreversibly changing, and we watch with a modulated reaction of weary amusement at the government man’s flailing attempts to get across his point, and of offended irritation at the base and presumptuous manner of attempted conversion and coercion. The conversation stretches for ever, time stops, the afternoon lasts a lifetime, the awkwardness of Hong Sang-soo’s portraits of blundering and completely misaligned conversations is placed in a historical context that makes it all the more painful to observe. This conceptually decisive meeting is rendered off-hand and utterly human, and the effect is exasperating and dispiriting, draining the life force of the audience in commiseration. A brief respite is given on each end of the film with the joyful freedom of dog-sledding, the riders popping on and off the sleds to run alongside their fleet movement, but when we return to these images after the meeting, images of the hunters heading home, it is with the awareness that this sweet joy, so simple upon its first appearance in the film, is what’s at stake.
Those That, At a Distance, Resemble Another
My first program in the bold Wavelengths section was a short and feature paired together due to their opposite approaches—hard and soft—to close-ups of hands doing work and the satisfaction the audience gets from different kinds of tactility. It began with the hard: the pleasingly shrill and satisfyingly materialist Heavy Metal Detox, a short film by Austrian artist Josef Dabernig. Essentially documenting a procedure of dental surgery, in swiftly cut and crisply graded 16mm black and white we see close-up fragments of just about everything—tools, mouth, hands, gloves, teeth—as what seems like a cleaning soon turns to more invasive work. The face of the patient and those of the doctor and assistants are kept off camera, so that the bare inventory and facts of the  experience are emphasized: this item, that action; cold steel and wet gums. Unless anyone in the audience is a dentist, we are as in the dark as to what is happening as the patient is, head back and unable to see what’s next. Patient, or victim? The soundtrack predictably, but no less gratifyingly, fulfills our expectations for grating tactility. If you’ve ever been under any of these tools, you’ll get goosebumps. Flourishes of organ-sounding music is cut in intermittently with faux-grandiose spirit and wry humor, confirming the tone of this as comic horror. A shot of an X-ray gives away the game, deepens the performance: The patient is Dabernig himself, subjected as much to the dentist’s tools as he is to his own analytic decoupage. Artistic creation as tortuous surgery, painfully necessary excavation, a film built as the body is taken apart. The great mystery: How on earth did he “direct” while anesthetized? 
After that disarmingly simple—but nerve-wrackingly palpable—gem, Jessica Sarah Rinland’s Those That, at a Distance, Resemble One Another came as sweet relief. Through initial title cards and general subject of images, I am to infer the film has something to do with the nature of authenticity and replication in anthropology and the museum world. We see all manner of crafting, sculpting, repairing, and object-wrapping in close-up 16mm, presumably working at a camera-based ontological poem pondering whether the real matters when replicas are made with such care. But this didn’t really spark my brain; this subject isn’t the softness of which I wrote. Instead, it was the sound of the thing, and the careful, attentive and habituated actions.
I have never personally experienced the shiver-tingle-pleasure sensation associated with the ASMR phenomenon that has swept YouTube, but I certainly am familiar with the visual and aural feel that supposedly causes it—and Rinland has nailed that feel with so much of her feature debut. Pages in a British Museum catalog of facsimile auction prices are a neat object to see inscribed on celluloid, but even more pleasurable was the closely miked sound of the pages touched, grabbed, and turned. Cotton swabs dab a thin covering over some precious (or faux-precious) object, to cosy effect. Plastic is smoothed over an ancient sculpture, the gesture intimate and knowing, the sound at once eerie and as satisfying as popping bubble wrap. That colorfully manicured female hands are frequently shown in these close-ups, and that nail design has been credited to the director, hints very strongly that the film is keenly aware of its sensation. I imagine the rationale as something like, what does it matter if this ceremonial urn  is the real thing or not—it feels fucking amazing. I wish I could advocate more for its concept and structure, but that often felt much like the finest possible result of a well-funded grant application, adapted more with an eye for the beauty and perhaps some poetry found in the research than for observations or arguments made on the subject. No matter: Throughout, I was mildly intrigued and very, very soothed. All evening plans after the screening were canceled, and at home I slept like a baby.
Warmly,
Danny

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