Goodbye to Language
Jean-Luc Godard's latest free-form essay film may be, more than anything else, a documentary of a restless mind.
* This filmography is not intended to be a comprehensive list of this artist’s work. Instead it reflects the films this person has been involved with that have been reviewed on this site.
Remembering Maya Angelou; Facebook gives up; Jon Benjamin as HAL; The fear of the new; Of literary television and the damage done.
Writer Michał Oleszczyk responds to our Movie Love Questionnaire.
The competition film "A Castle in Italy," a lightweight comedy, seems strangely out of place.
Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's "Lovelace" tells the story of the eponymous porn star who stunned the world with her sexual talents in "Deep Throat" (1972), only to pay a dear price for her brief flash of celebrity. Linda Lovelace, as played by Amanda Seyfried, was a love-hungry, innocent young girl led astray by Chuck Traynor, a manipulative pimp of a husband, whose affection quickly turned into exploitation.
The Toronto Film Festival is universally considered the opening of Academy Awards season, and the weary moviegoer, drained after a summer of exhausted superheroes and franchises, plunges in it with joy. I've been attending since 1977, and have watched it grow from a bootstrap operation, with the schedule improvised from day to day, into one of the big four (with Cannes, Venice and Berlin).
The big loser in the 2012 Sight & Sound critics poll is... funny. OK, we know there are no losers, only winners! But, still, with the obvious exceptions of "Citizen Kane" and "Rules of the Game," this decade's consensus choices for the Greatest Films of All Time are not a whole lotta laughs, even though they're terrific motion pictures. There's not much in the way of chuckles or joie de vivre to be found in "Vertigo," "Tokyo Story," "Man with a Movie Camera," "The Searchers," "The Passion of Joan of Arc"... At least "Sunrise," "2001: A Space Odyssey" and "8 1/2" have healthy senses of humor, but "Kane" and "Rules of the Game" are the only movies in the top 10 with the propulsive vitality of (screwball) comedy. They are flat-out fun (even if they are regarded as "classics"). And with "Kane" bumped to #2 this time, The List has become, to paraphrase a great comedy from the 1980s, one less funny.
I say this as someone who believes that comedy is everything, and that drama is lifeless (or at least emotionally stunted) without it. Some might argue that comedy without drama is also limited and superficial, but I think comedy is more profound and complex -- and more difficult to pull off successfully. I can name plenty of comedies that capture a mature vision of human existence (if you're into that kind of thing -- like all of Buster Keaton), but a drama that (artificially) excludes humor is feels false and inert to me. [No, I'm not saying the other movies in the Top Ten are humorless or lack cinematic exuberance; just that their energy is not primarily comedic, as i feel Welles' and Renoir's are. To some extent, I'm talking about the overall tendency to value "seriousness" above "humor" in these sorts of exercises.] As for the 2012 Sight & Sound Top Ten, compare it with 1982 ("Singin' in the Rain," "The General"), 1992 ("L'Atlante") and 2002 ("Singin' in the Rain"). The lack of comedy on the new list hearkens back to the Somber Ol' Days of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. As somebody once said: Why so serious?
A quiet story of incestuous desire told with deadpan precision and a fair share of subliminal humor, "The Unspeakable Act" marks its writer-director's long-awaited cinematic breakthrough. Even though New York-based Dan Sallitt (born 1955) has been making movies from the mid-1980s on (he had three under his belt before this one), his media presence has been unduly under-the-radar throughout that period. With the new movie scooping The Independent Visions Prize at the 2012 Sarasota Film Festival, and then being picked up by Edinburgh, Karlovy Vary and - most notably - BAMcinemaFest (where it plays 24 June at 9:30 PM), it's high time to put Sallitt on the map of highly original independent American filmmakers, which is where he'd belonged right from the start.
"People who are just getting 'seriously interested' in film always ask a critic, 'Why don't you talk about technique and "the visuals" more?' The answer is that American movie technique is generally more like technology and it usually isn't very interesting. [...] The important thing is to convey what is new and beautiful in the work, not how it was made - -which is more or less implicit." -- Pauline Kael, "Trash, Art and the Movies" (1969)
"By neglecting to analyze technique, Miss Kael can do no more than assert that a given film is new, or beautiful, hoping that her language will provide the reader with something parallel to the qualities implicit in the work of art." -- Charles T. Samuels, reviewing Kael's 1970 collection Going Steady (which includes "Trash, Art and the Movies") in the New York Times Book Review
"It is this implacable ignorance of the mechanics of filmmaking that prevails in all Kael's books. Yet she is never called on it. The reason, of course, is that her audience knows even less of these mechanics than she does, and professional film people do not wish to incur her displeasure by calling attention to it. She seems to believe that films are made by a consortium of independent contractors -- the writer writes, the cutter cuts, the actor acts, the cameraman photographs. In effect she is always blaming the cellist for the tuba solo." -- John Gregory Dunne, reviewing Kael's Deeper Into Movies (1973) in the Los Angeles Times Book Review
"To me, a good review, good criticism -- whether it's in the Cahiers du Cinema or Film Comment -- would be trying not to say, 'I don't feel,' or 'I don't see it the way you saw it,' but, rather, 'Let's see it. Let's bring in the evidence.'" -- Jean-Luc Godard, debating Kael in 1981 and challenging her approach to criticism
"Listen, you miserable bitch, you've got every right in the world to air your likes and dislikes, but you got no goddam right at all to fake, at my expense, a phony technical knowledge you simply do not have." -- director George Roy Hill in a letter to Kael (quoted in Brian Kellow's biography, "Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark")¹
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In her 1969 Harper's essay "Trash, Art and the Movies," Pauline Kael made her case for trash, saying semi-famously: "Movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them." But what separates "art" from "trash" (whatever she means by those labels) and is it really an either/or question? What if the differences have something (or everything) to do with "technique" (by which Kael, depending on which sentence you cite, might mean anything from technology to professional craftsmanship to directorial style)? After all, her favorite filmmakers (Altman, Peckinpah, De Palma, Godard, Spielberg) are stylists whose artistic vision (trashy vision?) is inseparable from their distinctive techniques. Even at a glance, you're not likely to mistake these auteurs' films for anyone else's.
So, I'd like to look into how the term(s) "technical" and "technique" are used by Kael (mostly in "Trash, Art and the Movies") and in those cherce quotations above. Way back when, Sidney Lumet said he considered Kael one of the most "perceptive and articulate" reviewers to come along in years, but that, like most critics, she lacked "any technical knowledge of how a movie is made." That mattered to him -- maybe especially after she said in his presence (after many spirited libations) that her job was "to tell him which way to go."²
Dunne, the occasional screenwriter, observed: "Few critics understand the roles of chance, compromise, accident and contingency in the day-by-day of a picture."³ I'd add that a failure to recognize the collaborative back-and-forth of the creative process -- and the industrial process -- of making movies (including contractual measures and union guidelines) also contributes to embarrassing critical misunderstandings that regularly find their way into print.
Whenever research confirms something we feel we already knew intuitively, or from our own experience, there are always people who'll scoff and say, "Well, I could have told you that!" And maybe they could have, but that's not the point. Science is a discipline involving systematic observation and empirical evidence, not unverified hunches. Movies, of course, are optical illusions -- photographic, electronic and/or mechanical phenomena that exploit the peculiarities of our eyes and brains... and elicit all manner of feelings. They are science and they are sometimes art, and the methods of studying one or the other can be complementary.
Take one of my favorite David Bordwell posts ("Hands (and faces) across the table"), which has recently been revived (resurrected! It's alive!) through the eyes of science, thanks to DB's guest-blogger, Tim Smith ("Watching you watch 'There Will Be Blood'"), of Continuity Boy, the Department of Psychological Sciences at Birkbeck College, University of London, and The DIEM (Dynamic Images and Eye Movements) Project.
In 2008, DB wrote about the map scene in Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood," in which the camera remained fixed during a long take while the looks and gestures of the actors "directed" the viewer's gaze. He wrote:
In honor of the late Claude Chabrol, one of the great filmmakers of the French New Wave, co-author with Eric Rohmer of the first book on Alfred Hitchcock, maker of moral thrillers and autopsier of the dis-ease of the bourgeoisie ("Les Biches," "La femme infidel," "Le boucher," "La rupture," "Violette Nozière," "La cérémonie"...), here is my Opening Shot (and closing shot) piece for "La femme infidel:
A fairy-tale home in a wooded setting. Two women sit an an outdoor table in the shade of some tall trees. The camera glides across the lawn silently (we can't hear what they're saying, just barely audible laughter) at an oblique angle that takes us closer to the women, but not directly toward them. A big black trunk passes startlingly across the screen in the foreground. Then a smaller trunk comes into the shot, mid-distance, and nicely frames the image. That's all there is to the opening shot (which lasts less than 10 seconds), but to understand the context we have to consider the rest of the brief pre-titles sequence.
CHAMPAIGN-URBANA -- Michael Tolkin, the writer-director of 1994's "The New Age," which played at Ebertfest on Thursday, surveyed the packed house from the stage of Champaign's historic Virginia Theater and said, "This now doubles the number of people who saw this film on its first release."
We tend to remember long takes that call attention to themselves as such: the opening shots of "Touch of Evil" or "The Player"; the entrance to the Copacabana in "GoodFellas"; all those shots in Romanian movies, and pictures directed by Bela Tarr and Jia Zhangke... And then there are the ones you barely notice because your eyes have been guided so effortlessly around the frame, or you've been given the freedom to explore it on your own, or you've simply gotten so involved in the rhythms of the scene, the interplay between the characters, that you didn't notice how long the shot had been going on.
For this compilation, "Deep Focus," I've chosen eight shots I treasure (the last two I regard as among the finest in all of cinema). They're not all strictly "deep focus" shots, but they do emphasize three-dimensionality in their compositions. I've presented them with only minimal identifications so you can simply watch them and see what happens without distraction or interruption. Instead, I've decided to write about them below. Feel free to watch the clips and then re-watch (freeze-frame, rewind, replay) the clips to see what you can see. To say they repay re-viewing is an understatement.
Quentin Tarantino told a BAFTA audience in London last month that he'd like to remembered for a body of work, like Howard Hawks.
This sparked a discussion between Anne Thompson and Jack Mathews of moviefone.com over at the indieWire-hosted Thompson on Hollywood (cross-posted at Slate Film Salon) -- a "dueling blog" about whether Tarantino (who told the New York Times that he worked quickly to get "Inglourious Basterds" ready for Cannes because he "wanted to have a masterpiece before the decade's out") can be said to have produced "a legacy of greatness":
JM -- ... No question, he has proven his greatness to his hardcore fans, among whose numbers many critics and film scholars can be counted. But in the 16 years since "Pulp Fiction," he has not come close to matching that film's brilliance. His movies, while enjoyable to watch, are self-indulgent games for him. If "Inglourious Basterds" is a great war movie, "Blazing Saddles" is a great Western. They're both fun but that's all they are.
AT --Wow. Do movies have to educate us?
It's a movie. No, it's a ride. No, it's a movie and a ride! Variety reports that Koreans have been lining up for 4D "ride films," beginning with last year's "Journey to the Center of the Earth." The 4D, "five-sense" version of "Avatar" now features
more than 30 effects during the 3D film's 162 minute run, including moving seats, smells of explosives, sprinkling water, laser lights and wind. Despite the much higher $15.80 ticket price (an average ticket costs $6.90), screenings are regularly sold out.
"We (started to) prepared the 'Avatar' 4D ride last summer," says Tom Oh, prexy of 20th Century Fox Korea. [...]
"There is no 4D theater like ours around the world. CGV's 4D plex is the first in the world that fully offers five-sense experiences with a movie title," says Kim Daehee, publicity manager of CJ-CGV.
Coming: 4D versions of Chris Columbus's "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" and others.
Are we circling back around to flight-simulator theme park attractions built around movie "narratives," like Disney's 1987 Star Tours "Star Wars" ride? (Or, for that matter, like 1955's Peter Pan's Flight at Disneyland?) At what point does the experience cease to become a movie experience (as we've known it since the beginning of the 20th Century) and become a virtual reality simulation? The "ride movie" has nearly become a (sub-)genre of its own since "Raiders of the Lost Ark" perfected the form -- and movies are often based on video games or even amusement park rides ("Rollercoaster," "Pirates of the Caribbean"), so is this just another gimmick -- like William Castle's Percepto process for 1959's "The Tingler," or Universal's Sensurround for 1974's "Earthquake" (and other "immersive" disaster movies), or John Waters' Odorama for 1981's "Polyester"? Have we been here before (just another element in a cross-promotable "transmedia storytelling platform"), or is this something "new"? And, in any case, does it (or 3-D) satisfy the same appetites that have traditionally attracted people to movies? Now that they're retro-fitting existing movies for additional dimensionality, what would a 4-D Eric Rohmer movie be like? How about a 4-D "My Dinner with Andre" -- with the smell of real dinner? Would a 4-D Rob Zombie movie allow the audience to actually feel the pain of the victims onsceen?
Meanwhile, Wim Wenders is making 3-D movies in Italy...
(tip: Steven Santos)
In 1959 Jean-Luc Godard famously proclaimed that tracking shots are a matter of morality -- an inversion of fellow Cahier du cinéma critic Luc Moullet's formulation that "morality is a matter of tracking shots" ("morale set affaire de travellings," sometimes translated as "morality is in the tracking shots"). The evangelical theorists behind what became known as the French New Wave had a tendency to ascribe moral values to cinematic style and technique.¹ André Bazin and the late Eric Rohmer, especially, championed the moral as well as aesthetic superiority of mise en scène over montage, of Hawksian "invisible cutting" over dictatorial Eisensteinian editing, and of deep-focus over a more selective, shallow depth-of-field. Bazin praised directors such as Orson Welles and William Wyler (in collaboration with cinematographer Gregg Toland) for staging shots so that "the viewer is at least given the opportunity to edit the scene himself, to select the aspects of it to which he will attend."
As David Bordwell summarized:
Their "deep-focus" style, he claimed, produced a more profound realism than had been seen before because they respected the integrity of physical space and time. According to Bazin, traditional cutting breaks the world into bits, a series of close-ups and long shots. But Welles and Wyler give us the world as a seamless whole. The scene unfolds in all its actual duration and depth. Moreover, their style captured the way we see the world; given deep compositions, we must choose what to look at, foreground or background, just as we must choose in reality. [...]
[Bazin wrote that deep-focus] "forces the spectator to participate in the meaning of the film by distinguishing the implicit relations" and creates "a psychological realism which brings the spectator back to the real conditions of perception."
Click above to REALLY enlarge...
UPDATED 01/28/10: 2:25 p.m. PST -- COMPLETED!: Thanks for all the detective work -- and special thanks to Christopher Stangl and Srikanth Srinivasan himself for their comprehensive efforts at filling the last few holes! Now I have to go read about who some of these experimental filmmakers are. I did find some Craig Baldwin movies on Netflix, actually...
Srikanth Srinivasan of Bangalore writes one of the most impressive movie blogs on the web: The Seventh Art. I don't remember how I happened upon it last week, but wow am I glad I did. Dig into his exploration of connections between Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" and Jean-Luc Godard's "History of Cinema." Or check out his piece on James Benning's 1986 "Landscape Suicide." There's a lot to look through, divided into sections for Hollywood and World Cinema.
In the section called "The Cinemaniac... I found the above collage (mosaic?) of mostly-famous faces belonging to film directors, which Srikanth says he assembled from thumbnails at Senses of Cinema. Many of them looked quite familiar to me, and if I'm not mistaken they were among the biographical portraits we used in the multimedia CD-ROM movie encyclopedia Microsoft Cinemania, which I edited from 1994 to 1998, first on disc, then also on the web. (Anybody with a copy of Cinemania able to confirm that? My Mac copy of Cinemania97 won't run on Snow Leopard.)
In the nearly three days since I learned of Eric Rohmer's death, I've been looking over his filmography, which has stimulated a flood of fond recollections. Few directors have left behind so many enjoyable, stimulating, gorgeous movies -- photographed by none other than Nestor Almendros until the mid-'80s, a beau mariage made in cinema heaven. I was trying to think of a Rohmer film I actively dislike... and I can't. (There are a few I haven't seen, a few I like more than others, a few I don't remember very well...) But a surprising number of them still live among my favorite movie-memories: "Perceval," "Summer"/"The Green Ray," "My Night at Maud's," "The Marquise of O...", "Pauline at the Beach," "Le beau mariage"...
At The Crop Duster, Robert Horton, who was discovering these movies at the same time I was, recalls Rohmer by resurrecting his terrific 1984 piece on "Pauline at the Beach," and by lightly tracing his own life through cinematic encounters with the director's movies in an entry he calls "A Rohmer Datebook."
First, a swell mini-overview from the former:
Rohmer has been on a hot streak lately. Keep in mind he was a slow starter compared to some of his friends in the French New Wave. Rohmer made short films during the 1950s, and he was editor-in-chief of Cahiers du Cinema, the magazine in which Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol et al. vented their auteurist spleens, from 1957 to 1963. Those other fellows had already collected an armful of international awards by the time Rohmer completed his first widely-recognized feature, "La collectioneuse," in 1967 (though he had been directing for some time already). That film was part of his contes moraux--Moral Tales--and the next entry, "Ma nuit chez Maud" ("My Night at Maud's," 1968), brought him shoulder to shoulder with the world's leading filmmakers. After he finished the Moral Tales, Rohmer took time out to pursue projects with settings completely different from the palpably modern landscapes of the six Moral Tales; predictably enough, "The Marquise of O..." (1976) and "Perceval le Gallois" (1978) were two of the best and most intriguing works of the decade.
Paris, Jan. 11 -- The phone rang at 5:30 p.m.. It was France's around-the-clock cable news station France24 asking if I could speak about the death of Eric Rohmer, live, in about 10 minutes. The news was very fresh in France and this was the first I'd heard of it.
Except for François Truffaut and Louis Malle, who both died relatively young, the most prolific talents of the French New Wave era are still at it. Claude Chabrol makes at least one film a year; Jacques Rivette and Alain Resnais released new features in 2009; Agnes Varda is busy mounting conceptual installations when she's not making her delightful documentaries; Jean-Luc Godard is still tinkering away on digital video.
You begin to think they're immortal -- that much like symphony conductors who live to ripe old ages because waving their arms around is excellent exercise, that "pointing into the distance" pose so characteristic of film directors may be a boon to their longevity.
Arthur Penn's "Night Moves" (1975) is one of the great movies of the '70s. As a detective picture about a private eye with flawed vision -- in this case, a small-time independent dick and former football player named Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman), who'd like to think he's Sam Spade -- it would make a great double bill with "Chinatown," released the previous year. Yesterday, when the news came of French director Eric Rohmer's death, a lot of people who apparently hadn't even seen "Night Moves" (or, perhaps, a Rohmer movie) were freely quoting Moseby's famous wisecrack in pieces about Rohmer without providing any context for it:
"I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry."
It wasn't long before it even became a Twitter meme: #nightmoves. (See examples below, after jump.)
What some (not all) of the quoters didn't seem to realize or remember is that Harry's remark, as scripted by Alan Sharp, is a brittle homophobic jab at a gay friend of his wife's. (Watch the clip above.) Ellen (Susan Clark) invites Harry to join her and Charles (Ben Archibek -- that's him at the end of the clip) for a movie: Eric Rohmer's classic "My Night at Maud's" (1970), about an engaged man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) who spends a long, memorable night in conversation with a divorcee (Françoise Fabian). Moseby is asserting his macho credentials, and ends the scene by teasing Charles about going bowling again sometime. "You seem to get some weird kind of satisfaction from this sort of thing, don't you?" Charles replies. Later that night, Harry drives by the theater as the movie is letting out and sees something indicating that his wife may be having an affair.
The ever-reliable David Hudson tracks the Rohmer tributes at The Auteurs Daily.
I recall seeing Rohmer's last film at the Toronto Film Festival in 2007:
Eric Rohmer has made a career out of chronicling the rituals of romance (and Romanticism), from the 6th century to the present, and from his celebrated film series, Six Moral Tales (1963 - 1972), Comedies and Proverbs (1981 - 1986), and Tales of the Four Seasons (1990 - 1998). And then there are those elegantly contrived period pictures that don't fit into the series, like "Perceval," "The Marquise of O," "The Lady and the Duke" (which I haven't seen) and now "Les Amours d'Astrée et de Céladon" (known in English-speaking Canada as "The Romance of Astrea and Celadon").
Two of my favorite Rohmer films (perhaps my two very favorites) seem to be among his least-mentioned: "Perceval" and "Summer" (aka "Le Rayon vert") -- the former completely artificial (shot on a painted soundstage) and the latter an equally charming portrait of a romantic klutz.
"Les Amours d'Astrée et de Céladon" is a Rohmerian delight, another ritualized romance (highly mannered behavior, poetic language) played out in a naturalistic pastoral setting (an unblemished slice of French countryside around the River Lignon)....
We've lost a gentle and wise humanist of the movies. Eric Rohmer 89, one of the founders of the French New Wave died Monday Jan. 11 in Paris. The group , which inaugurated modern cinema, included Jean-Pierre Melville, Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Agnes Varda, Alain Resnais, Jacques Rivette and Louis Malle. Melville, Truffaut and Malle have died, but the others remain productive and creative in their 80s.
View image Shot #1 (of this clip -- not of the entire sequence). A fairly conventional shot establishing the red car on the left gaining on the orange one on the right. I'd say these shots look a lot cooler on the page (and probably on the computer storyboards) than they do in "action."
View image Shot #2. Red car driver (Taejo) pulls up alongside Snake Oiler (not that their identities are clear from the movie itself).
View image Shot #3. Back to two-shot.
There's no action No no no there's no action -- Elvis Costello, 1978
When I was four years old I went to the 1962 Seattle World's Fair -- the one where Elvis and Joan O'Brien were, according to the ads, seen "swinging higher than the Space Needle" in "It Happened at the World's Fair" (Norman Taurog, 1963). There was a roller coaster called the Wild Mouse, but I was too afraid to ride on it. I did, however, like The Scrambler, which whirled you around in a logical geometrical pattern (although it felt pretty wild when you were on it) that looked really cool when seen from directly overhead, up on the observation deck of the Space Needle. (For years I had nightmares about falling off of the Needle, and if I'd ever hit the ground I would like to think I would have been extra-scrambled by the Scrambler.)
View image Roger & Chaz Ebert, with Roger's second sidewalk star. (All photos by Jim Emerson. Thanks to Kim Robeson for the use of the camera on this one!)
View image Man Push Dog. Anyone will tell you that one of the joys of TIFF is the street food. I was inspired to take this after seeing "Chop Shop," Ramin Bahrani's second film after "Man Push Cart." Want green olives on that dog? I do.
On average, I saw two to four movies a day at the 2007 Toronto Film Festival -- and, incredibly, I didn't see a bad movie. That's nine days and 20-something pictures (less than one tenth of the total screened), but I don't think I've ever had a run of good movies like that in my life. No, I didn't write about everything I saw -- but I also liked Ira Sachs' "Married Life," Chaude Chabrol's "A Girl Cut in Two" (figuratively and literally), Gus van Sant's "Paranoid Park," and those other movies I saw, except for the one I walked out on (the third in a four-movie day) that was not so much bad as doleful and predictable. And there was the Woody Allen movie I accidentally half-saw, without knowing I was half-seeing it.
View image Toronto Film Festival Co-Founder Dusty Cohl with Roger Ebert. Ya got a coupla stars here.
View image Ingmar Bergman's Death (center, rear) welcomes ticketbuyers, lined up at the TIFF box office in the Manulife Centre, which is being remodeled (nice duct-work, eh?) and currently looks like something out of Terry Gilliam's "Brazil." The woman in orange (center, foreground) is one of the fest's fantastically friendly and organized volunteers.
On the other hand, I also didn't take all that many risks. Most of what I saw was by familiar directors I like, or came recommended by fellow critics or other film festivals. There were some movies I wanted to see just because they sounded interesting (not because I'd ever heard of the filmmakers), but I couldn't squeeze them in, and in that sense I did not have the full experience a festival has to offer.
View image They do love their celebs up in Toronto. Last year, air-polluting, environment-destroying Sean Penn smoked at a press conference and it was a huge scandal. The paparazzi couldn't wait to catch him with a cigarette this time. And when they did -- front page news!
View image The "Juno" guys.More photos after the jump...
Anyway, although I fear some of the films I saw even ten days ago are no longer as vivid in my memory because of the ones I've seen since, here were my ten favorite Toronto movies, in very rough order of preference:
"No Country for Old Men" (Joel & Ethan Coen)"I'm Not There" (Todd Haynes)"Chop Shop" (Ramin Bahrani)"Secret Sunshine" (Lee Chang-dong)"Eastern Promises" (David Cronenberg)"Atonement" (Joe Wright)"The Orphanage" (Juan Antonio Bayona)"Persepolis" (Marjane Satrapi & Vencent Paronnaud)"Les Amours d'Astrée et de Céladon" (Eric Rohmer)"4 months, 3 weeks, 2 days" (Cristian Mungiu)
More photos after the jump...
View image Me with post-festival headcold, after just getting back home and sinking into the comfort of my den-like Man Chair. (all photos by Jim Emerson, except as noted)
My taxi driver to the airport yesterday (he was Ethiopian, but had lived in Toronto for 18 years) asked me if I'd seen any "movie stars" at the film festival. I had to admit I hadn't -- although I've encountered people I consider to be movie stars on the street in past years: Luis Guzman, Liev Schreiber, Brian De Palma, Sara Polley, Stephen Rea, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne...
View image The ubiquitous (and deservedly so) Girish. A man with cinecurean tastes. (That's a neologism of my own invention that is related to "epicure" and has nothing to do with "sinecure," I don't think.)
Toronto, at least at festival time, is a celebrity-mad city like no place I've ever seen. Celebrities make the front pages of the newspapers just because they're celebrities and they're in Toronto. Rogers cable used to have a non-stop TIFF schedule of celebrity gossip, celebrity interviews, off-the-cuff "reviews," and celebrity press conferences. I don't know if they did that this year, because I never turned on the television in my hotel room. (Meanwhile, TiVo was covering other necessities for me at home.)
View image Andy Horbal plays Mephisto at the foot of the Stairway to Heaven (the escalator to the Varsity Cinemas).
View image The House Next Door's Keith Uhlich took this shot of himself with his MacBook, outside the press office at the Delta Chelsea.
Some journalists and critics were doing celebrity interviews in addition to going to movies, with stars like George A. Romero (whose girlfriend was the bartender at my hotel!) or Jodie Foster or Brian De Palma or Bela Tarr -- in gang-bang roundtables or 15-30-minute individual sessions. The people I was most excited about getting to meet were my fellow movie bloggers. I had lunch with Girish Shambu between screenings in Toronto last year, and it was a pleasure to see him again, particularly since he enjoyed the oblique, androgynous eroticism of the luminous Eric Rohmer movie as much as I did. His highest recommendation was for Barcelona-born director Jose Luis Guerin's "Dans la ville de Sylvia" -- which, unfortunately, I missed. We also thought Lee Chang-dong's "Secret Sunshine" was among the very best things we'd seen.
View image Frames within frames within frames -- and film-festival bedhead. Me at work in my Toronto hotel room.
Keith Uhlich, editor of "The House Next Door," organized a mid-fest critics' roundtable podcast, 'round a tiny round table in Nathan Lee's hotel room with Nathan (whose byline should be familiar from the Village Voice, Film Comment, The New York Times), Torontonian eyeWeekly critic Adam Nayman, Keith, and me. It was too much fun -- we ran out of time long before we ran out of stuff we wanted to talk about. Of course, that was the morning I forgot to bring my camera. Too bad, because if you saw Nathan's new-mown haircut, you'd want to rub his head. It's that cool. (I'll post a link to the podcast when it's available, if you want to hear us go on about the trials of film critics filing reports and interviews from festivals, our indelible images from TIFF, Brian De Palma, Bob Dylan, Todd Haynes, semiotics [not much!], and I forget what else.)
View image Christopher Long, in Philly Eagles t-shirt, who has a woman on his right shoulder saying: "Come, have another cup of coffee!" and a man on his other shoulder saying: "No, there's a huge schedule of films to see -- what's next?"
I also got to meet up with Christopher Long, a frequent and valued contributor to Scanners comments, and reviewer for DVDTown and other sites. Chris claims to loathe Paul Haggis's "Crash" (and Sam Mendes's "American Beauty" -- two peas in a pod) even more than me. I don't know if that's possible, but I found him convincing. They both do the same morally corrupt thing, anyway: taking grotesque clichés and then flipping them around so that that they are... even more insulting clichés. All in the name of "enlightenment." We had a nice talk about our mutual admiration for Divine, too. Don't recall how that one came up.
I'm delighted to have more faces to put with the words I've appreciated from these folks for so long.
Look at this woman. Do you hate her character yet?
Noah Baumbach's "Margot at the Wedding" is one of the scariest films ever. Because it plays like a hidden-camera home movie as psychological x-ray. And no one is spared its cold, uncompromising scrutiny. (Or think of it as a segment of TV's "To Catch a Predator" -- and, as on the NBC flytrap reality show, everybody is the predator.)
If I were a character from the movie critiquing the movie, I would probably say something like: "Noah Baumbach must really detest his dreadful dysfunctional family." Baumbach's follow-up to "The Squid and the Whale" (among my top films of 2005) is another dead-on portrait of monstrously self-absorbed Northeastern inbreeders who believe that being "authentic" or "honest" means they have to express every single critical judgment or self-indulgent emotion that occurs to them, especially if they can use it to belittle or undermine somebody else in their immediate circle. Usually, that includes throwing in a clinical diagnosis, as a way of damning and dismissing the subject, and getting the amateur diagnostician off the moral hook just a little. (If you claim to be observing a "condition," then neither you nor the object of the diagnosis can be held fully responsible.)
If I describe it as a horror movie -- torture porn about a long-obsolete class of super-self-conscious but utterly un-self-aware white East-Coast intellectual trash -- I trust that also conveys how bitterly, nastily funny the movie is. It's like a Neil LaBute picture co-written by Jules Feiffer. Scalpel-sharp. Merciless. Cruel. Uncompromisingly misanthropic. And really getting off on being so.
I don't think I've ever felt such contempt toward characters in a movie before. Perhaps it's Strindbergian. The TIFF catalog compares the movie to Bergman and Woody Allen's Bergman exercise, "Interiors," and even Eric Rohmer. (Rohmer without pity. Or affection, I guess.) I thought it was more like "The Devil's Rejects," if the members of the Firefly family fed upon one another. And it's funny.
The people in this movie are types who either crib from their friends' and families' lives for their New Yorker short stories -- or who are mortified and infuriated that details from their lives are appearing in their friends' or families' New Yorker short stories. You may assume there's an "autobiographical" dimension to it not only because one of the movies subjects is the way writers autopsy and cannibalize the people in their lives for their fiction, but also because each and every knife-twisting line is so toxic and cutting, so astonishingly self-serving, that you figure somebody just had to have actually said it, or thought it, or attributed it to somebody else in a snarky piece of gossip disguised as a revealing psychological insight disguised as an expression of sincere concern. In other words, the way these people talk and behave seems too awful not to be true.
"Well," says one published author in the film, "we all take from life." The difference is that, by this point in the movie, I assume her work is probably terrible, simultaneously pitiless and self-pitying, relentlessly "honest" and utter bullshit. (See the character of Briony in "Atonement.") Baumbach himself, however, is an exceptionally keen writer and observer of the stifling Upper-East-class milieu in which he was raised. (Both his parents are writers and -- ouch -- film critics.) Which doesn't mean his movie has anything to do with them. But one littérateur in the film observes that the character of the father in another's story is loathsome but strangely sympathetic. You could say the same thing about nearly any character in "Margot at the Wedding." Just leave out the "sympathetic." In fact, just about anything you can say about this movie has already been addressed (and ridiculed) in this movie.
Here's the basic set-up: Margot (Nicole Kidman) and her androgynously doughy offspring, appropriately named Claude (or "Clawd" or "Clod," as in formless lump of dirt, played to excruciating perfection by Zane Pais) go to visit Margot's estranged sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) in the old family house on the beach where they were raised. Pauline is about to get married to Malcolm (Jack Black), another shapeless wad of humanity who sports an ironic mustache that's "supposed to be funny." Next door are some vile neighbors living in a shack with the Kid From "Deliverance," who are probably killing and eating whatever creatures (including wild animals, domesticated dogs and human babies) they can hunt. They're like the family from "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" (Tobe Hooper's), but they seem a little more human(e) than the main characters in the big house.
Everybody is so busy trying to avoid appearing hypocritical that there's not a genuine, straightforward emotional interaction in the film, just bubbles of self-absorbtion bumping into one another. These are extremely isolated, ultra-privileged people who would prefer to feel guilty about their privilege than grateful, because guilt intensifies their drama and their suffering and their sense of their own significance. Which, in the end, makes them feel a little better about themselves.
Oh, and there's the most cynically self-conscious use of a dog in the history of motion pictures. Baumbach knows exactly what he's doing, and it works.
If I'm making the film sound detestable, maybe that's the best way I know of to express my admiration for it, and the way it keeps relentlessly covering the same ground (the characters' linty psychic navels) while still managing to top itself, scene after scene. You'd think there's be almost no place to go after a mother -- quietly, with a vicious mixture of "concern" and disappointment -- tells her teenage son that he's "changed" and no longer has the grace she says she once treasured, and then adds as an afterthought, "But you're still handsome!" And yet, there is. The scene I just mentioned made me gasp and then laugh in astonishment. Unfortunately, through most of the movie, nobody around me was laughing much. To them, it maybe seemed more like Eugene O'Neill, I don't know.
Every performance in the film is terrifyingly good/awful. (That is, the actors hit every off-note just right, and the characters -- in case I haven't made this clear -- are mortifying.) I think there's some kind of excoriating analytical and observational genius in this home-horror-movie about cretinous, semi-articulate dunces. But when it was over (climaxing in an astonishing moment of self-dramatization and self-absorbtion), the same thought popped into my head that did at the end of Todd Solondz's outlandishly scornful "Palindromes": Who's going to want to expose themselves to this gory dissection of these coldblooded creeps? Makes you want to see a good George Romero zombie movie. At least the Living Dead have real, uncalculated emotions.
P.S. I just went back and re-read Roger Ebert's review of Rob Zombie's "The Devil's Rejects." For me, the comparison works perfectly: Here is a gaudy vomitorium of a movie, violent, nauseating.... If you are a hardened horror movie fan capable of appreciating skill and wit in the service of the deliberately disgusting, [this film] may exercise a certain strange charm. If on the other hand you close your eyes if a scene gets icky, here is a movie to see with blinders on, because it starts at icky and descends relentlessly through depraved and nauseating to the embrace of road kill.