The Toronto International Film Festival (Web Exclusive)
by Richard Porton
Most film festivals, especially gargantuan events such as the Toronto International Film Festival (commonly abbreviated to TIFF), find it necessary to temper innovation with predictability. Dina Iordanova has observed that the so-called “festival circuit” might instead be labeled a “conveyor belt” or even a “treadmill.” It might also be apropos, and not even inordinately cynical, to label festivals “recycling plants”; after all, by the time Toronto rolls around it feels obliged to feature prizewinners from Cannes and Sundance while valiantly attempting to carve out its own identity. In recent years, after hordes of distributors, critics, and publicists began to descend upon Toronto, the festival has been chided for either trying to be all things to all audiences or capitulating to mainstream tastes with high profile “galas” of mediocre Hollywood films.
Yet, despite the more conformist aspects of TIFF, the festival’s vibrancy resides in sidebars often overlooked by the press, particularly “Real to Reel,” the intelligently curated documentary section, the avant-garde programs assembled in “Wavelengths,” and even, despite the derision and obliviousness of the foreign press, the numerous Canadian films interspersed throughout the program—not only in the “Canada First!” survey but also in other sections such as “Vanguard” and “Special Presentation” (as is par for the course in huge festivals, the rationale for these disparate, somewhat amorphous, categories, remains fuzzy).
At the very least, the entries in “Real to Reel” (which continues to be curated by Thom Powers) represent a fair sampling of ongoing documentary trends. Several of the documentaries chosen by Powers were intriguing despite certain dubious esthetic choices. Carter Gunn and Ross McDonnell’s Colony, to cite one of the most touted films in “Real to Reel,” is in part a fascinating chronicle of the distressing erosion of the bee population known as “colony collapse disorder.” The film might have been even more effective, however, if Gunn and McDonnell didn’t feel compelled to imitate many of Errol Morris’s stylistic quirks.
In terms of sheer craft, Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea’s L’Enfer de Henri-Georges Clouzot was the most successful documentary screened at TIFF. There is a special pathos intrinsic to documentaries devoted to unrealized projects—Bill Duncalf’s BBC documentary, The Epic That Never Was, on Josef von Sternberg’s aborted adaptation of I, Claudius also comes to mind. Bromberg and Medrea’s revelatory film on L’Enfer, Clouzot’s legendary unfinished film, is disturbing because the late “French Hitchcock’s” obsessive, and ultimately futile, meticulousness during the production of his dream project is a tamer corollary of the psychosis evinced by L’Enfer’s protagonist.
The outtakes from the ill-fated project are among the highlights of the documentary. As Todd McCarthy observed in Variety, Clouzot appeared to be striving for a “trippy,” hallucinatory quality and numerous takes of star Romy Schneider, looking both languorous and ineffably sexy, indicate that the finished film might well have proved as fascinatingly cryptic and visually striking as Vertigo. The documentary also tantalizes us with an unsolved and, perhaps, unsolvable mystery: why did Clouzot, who, according to his associates, was previously an efficient director who never went over budget, become mired in endless reshooting that ultimately alienated the stars, crew, and producers? Did L’Enfer’s story of a deranged husband’s maniacal jealousy cause Clouzot himself to go slightly off the rails? The film is slightly marred by Bromberg and Medrea’s odd decision to have two contemporary actors—Berenice Bojo and Jacques Gamblin—reenact snippets from L’Enfer’s script. And, oddly enough, Claude Chabrol’s 1994 film (also called L’Enfer and based on Clouzot’s script—a film that many critics concluded was at least a partial success) goes unmentioned.
While Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith’s The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (which ran for two weeks at Film Forum in New York) is a fairly conventional documentary portrait, it is perhaps the most seamless example of a recent nonfiction subgenre: quasihagiographic tributes to left-wing dissidents. (Other soon-to-be-released examples include William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, Emily and Sarah Kunstler’s bittersweet tribute to their late father, andAmerican Radical, David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier’s sympathetic portrait of Norman Finkelstein, the anti-Zionist scholar invariably described by one and all as “controversial.”) What is particularly poignant—and melancholy—about The Most Dangerous Man in America is a gradual realization that Ellsberg’s courageous decision to leak the Pentagon Papers to the press has had relatively little impact on post-Vietnam policymaking. A former confidante of Robert McNamara and a Rand Corporation renegade, Ellsberg fervently believed that the lessons culled from the Pentagon Papers might well prevent future quagmires. But, given the ongoing wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, his idealism might be termed sadly, if heroically, naïve.
A film such as Erik Gandini’s Videocracy highlights the fact that Ehrlich and Goldsmith’s earnest approach to political documentary is now frequently challenged by a more gimmicky modus operandi that is often both superficially “entertaining” and distressingly shallow. Gandini tackles a topic that is certainly something of a documentary goldmine: the blurry boundaries between politics and entertainment in Berlusconi’s Italy. Ostensibly trying to demystify the Berlusconi regime’s insidious employment of televised “bread and circuses” to defuse the political opposition, Videocracy also foregrounds the antics of some of the Prime Minister’s most buffoonish cronies. Lele Mora, a television agent with a garish villa in Sardinia where Berlusconi is a frequent guest, proudly shows off the fascist anthems that serve as ring tones on his cell phone. A campaign commercial in which women on treadmills croon, “Thank God Silvio exists!”, is chillingly farcical. Yet, while Gandini helpfully informs us that Berlusconi’s vapid television channels provide Italians with “eighty percent” of their news—i.e. “their prime source of information”—it’s difficult not to regret that he didn’t go beyond rudimentary statistics and gossipy tidbits to provide a full-fledged investigative evisceration of Berlusconi’s media empire.
Even though most American critics would not be caught dead at any Canadian film not directed by David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, or Guy Maddin, curious filmgoers at TIFF 2009 would have been much wiser if they skipped Egoyan’s inadvertently hilarious Chloe and instead checked out the work of another Canadian filmmaker, Reginald Harkema’s Leslie, My Name is Evil.
Harkema’s film is far from unproblematic; in fact, it is intended as a provocation and is perhaps meant to be lobbed, like a not quite precisely designed grenade, at unsuspecting spectators. But Leslie’s audaciousness is refreshing for that very reason. Harkema’s rhetorical stance might be described as, broadly speaking, “Swiftian,” while his cinematic vantage point conflates a slightly less campy variant of John Waters’s deadpan humor with a Brechtian cum Godardian sensibility. Partially a mock-Bildungsroman focusing on Manson disciple, Leslie Van Houten, as well as a pastiche of Sixties concerns determined to examine the complacency of the present, Harkema’s “modest proposal” entails taking seriously Charles Manson’s rebuttal to President Nixon’s notorious mid-trial insistence that the cult leader was guilty. Manson argued that the handful of deaths he and his followers were responsible for paled in comparison to the mass genocide Nixon presided over during the war in Vietnam.
Deploying Manson, however ironically, as an astute political commentator is surely designed to raise the hackles of many sober souls across the political spectrum; radical and liberals will probably be even more annoyed than conservatives. One rejoinder to reviewers who have condemned Harkema’s film as replete with caricatures and who have chided a supposedly ahistorical decision to posit the Manson family as the embodiment of Sixties counterculture (see, for example, Kirk Honneycutt’s review in The Hollywood Reporter: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/hr/film-reviews/leslie-my-name-is-evil-film-review-1004011397.story) is the first sentence of Jason Anderson’s introduction to a Harkema interview in the Fall 2009 issue of Cinema Scope: “ Not so much an attempt to recreate the most volatile epoch in recent American history as an effort to re-engineer its particular brand of psychosis in order to infect the present, Leslie, My Name is Evil seems to have traveled to us from a slightly alternate version of 1969.” It is also noteworthy that the film’s dedication to Harun Farocki and Jill Godmilow no doubt references Farocki’s documentary on the manufacture of napalm,Inextinguishable Fire, and Godmilow’s remake, What Farocki Taught. Harkema’s political burlesque is haunted by the more straightforwardly didactic work of Farocki and his ilk.
Another Canadian director, Vancouver-based Bruce Sweeney (who is perhaps even less well known outside Canada than skilled provocateur Harkema) scored a little-noticed minor triumph with Excited, his latest film to derive comic brio from sexual dysfunction and familial gloom. A skillful miniaturist whose Last Wedding was TIFF’s opening night film in 2001, Sweeney’s comedies of embarrassment share a kinship with early Mike Leigh films; the close observation of everyday annoyances often segue into unexpected emotional outbursts with tangibly amusing results. The razor-thin premise involves an amiable, if slightly neurotic, golf instructor whose romantic life is stymied by both irksome premature ejaculation and a consistently overbearing mother (played by veteran Canadian character actress Gabrielle Rose) who cannot help making disparaging remarks about his “exotic” Muslim girlfriend. While Excited’s unhurried pacing proved exasperating for Joe Leydon in Variety, Sweeney’s character-driven comedy will reward viewers who possess the requisite patience.
Excited might be deemed inconsequential enough by some critics to be dismissed as sitcomlike. The same certainly could not be said of Claire Denis’s White Material—a film that nevertheless disappointed many of the French director’s most devoted fans. Towards the end of White Material, a rebel in an unnamed African country expresses his distaste for “extreme blondness” and carps that “blue eyes are troublesome.” Despite the fact that these remarks are addressed to a character named Maria played by Isabelle Huppert, one of cinema’s most famous redheads, the rebel’s tirade offers a pithy summary of the film’s preoccupations. It’s not that Maria, who grows what is reputed to be “mediocre” coffee with her husband and rebellious teenage son and is too oblivious to reality to flee when a fierce civil war breaks out, is a stereotypical European villain embodying colonialist sins. She’s a confused, if rather sympathetic character; Denis does not go in for Manichean polarities, even though her sympathies clearly lie with the African characters (who are, it must be said, often unsavory and far from idealized stick figures.) Given Denis’s penchant for elliptical, even opaque, narrative construction, however, White Material’s “material” is in truth fairly conventional. As Girish Shambu, one of the land of cinephilia’s best bloggers, observed on his Facebook page: “Several things seem off here: the density of narrative event, the politically programmatic and unambiguous story and characters, but most of all: the rushed and nervous (not stately and measured) rhythms.” In addition, if the film is viewed as more or less “politically programmatic,” perhaps Denis might have at least grounded her narrative in a more specific political and historical framework. As it stands, White Material is not much more subtle in its politics than middlebrow fare such as Out of Africa.
A typically autumnal and acerbic work by an old master, Manoel de Oliveira, was much more assured and satisfying. De Oliveira’s Eccentricities of a Blonde-haired Girl is as succinct and witty as the Denis film is flat and nebulous. I’m not familiar with the work of José Maria de Eça de Queiroz, whose short story provides the source material. But Eccentricities, which contains generous doses of de Oliveira’s trademark perverse wit, builds to a denouement that is as insouciant (and, to a certain extent, as cruel) as any twist in Guy de Maupassant. De Oliveira’s insights into sexual tensions and the conflicts between commerce and marital bliss are not only sharp: they are, despite his reputation for “difficult” work, surprisingly entertaining.
It’s typical that many of the most ballyhooed commercial films at TIFF (even though they might be branded “independent”) turn out to be serious disappointments. Tom Ford’s A Single Man (bought for several million dollars by The Weinstein Company towards the end of the festival), to name one of the most prominent examples, is an adaptation of a Christopher Isherwood novel smothered (despite a decent performance by Colin Firth) by an obsessive devotion to production design. While it is always tempting to sample such high profile films at TIFF, it’s usually safer to stick to less ostentatious offerings. Mark Lewis’s Backstory—screened in the “Future Projections” section in which the boundaries of film and installation art are often effaced—was one of the most diverting “experimental” films screened at this year’s festival. Devoted to a father and son team (the Hansards), masters of the dying art of rear projection, Lewis manages to elucidate a little known aspect of film history, as well as delving into more abstruse avenues of inquiry such as parallels between rear projection and modernism, with humor and a singular lack of pretension. Films of this sort, intellectually ambitious but eminently accessible, made TIFF 2009 at least intermittently worthwhile.
Richard Porton is a member of the Cineaste editorial board.
Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Publishers, Inc.