Toronto International Film Festival Update
by Richard Porton
Content to remain a quarterly, Cineaste has never been obsessed with instant analysis. We tend to think that rushing to judgment is foolhardy and critical incisiveness usually requires the detachment fostered by careful editing and long lead times. So, in light of this preamble, why break tradition and blog at all? It remains to be seen if this tentative experiment will prove worthwhile. For the time being, we've decided to get our feet wet and experiment with this still-evolving New Media format. Despite a proliferation of blogs, there are relatively few that offer the sort of political or social analysis that our magazine is known for. So, humbly (and perhaps masochistically), I've put myself forward as a guinea pig and will be posting periodic communiqués (or, at the very least, one more eyewitness account) from the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF hereafter), which began last Thursday and ends on Saturday, September 19.
As I was waiting in line on Sunday evening for the first public screening of Michael Moore's Capitalism: A Love Story, a visiting New Yorker directly in front of me groused that it was highly ironic that Platinum and Gold Visa card holders were being directed to a priority queue (that guaranteed speedier entry) to the right of us while we poor schlumps with ordinary credit cards stared on glumly. (We all remained oddly poker-faced as cheery festival volunteers yelled out, "The Visa Platinum/ Gold line for Capitalism is on the right.") The main cinema in the historic Elgin Theatre on Yonge Street was renamed the "Visa Screening Room" some years ago and Moore himself announced "Welcome to the Visa Screening Room" while introducing his film; he proceeded to claim that a credit card factotum called him several days earlier with a plaintive inquiry, " Is there anything about Visa in your movie?"
This received a hearty laugh from 1400 staunchly pro-Moore Torontonians gathered at the Elgin to pay homage to a director whose pro-Canadian sentiments have made him something of a local icon. Yet the paradox of Visa gingerly welcoming Michael Moore to TIFF reveals many of the unresolved contradictions of Capitalism - an ambitious but hugely flawed movie that embodies a few of the director's strengths and many of his weaknesses.
A number of film critics (almost all of whom are, with notable exceptions, at least nominally left of center) have felt emotionally blackmailed over the years by invocations of Moore's supposed appeal to "The People." Before I saw the film, one Los Angeles-based critic who attended an early press screening told me that, although he was "as left-wing as anyone," he found the movie despicable. Leaving aside the rhetoric of Moore's passionate defenders and his most ardent critics (from both the right and left), his latest non-fiction epic is nothing if not a mixed bag. Given the sprawling subject matter (which would have required a twenty-hour miniseries by Peter Watkins or Chris Marker to do it justice, or perhaps the talents of the late Sergei Eisenstein, who once announced plans to adapt Marx's Capital for the screen), it's not surprising that Capitalism is the most poorly structured of all of Moore's features. Seemingly not knowing how to focus on two enormous topics-the inequities of the free market and the roots and impact of the recent economic meltdown-he throws everything he can think of into the cinematic pot and hopes something will stick. The movie recapitulates ( perhaps unwittingly) Moore's Greatest Hits. The early sequences of bankrupt Americans being evicted from their foreclosed homes recalls aspects of Roger and Me while much of the shtick towards the end of this amorphous documentary-Moore once again visiting General Motors' headquarters in Detroit and demanding to talk to the Chairman, the paunchy filmmaker attempting to make a "citizen's arrest" of A.I.G.- is reminiscent of hijinks in Roger, Bowling for Columbine, and TV Nation. Considering how stale these stabs at humor appeared to me, it must be a reflection of the audience's good will that they cheered and laughed uproariously at these lame stunts.
In the current issue of Cineaste, Nomi Prins assesses the recent crop of documentaries devoted to sifting through the origins, as well as the wreckage of, the Great Recession. Although all of them are admittedly drier than Capitalism, Moore's efforts at explaining our current morass come off as distressingly scattershot. It's understandable that a filmmaker who prides himself on being essentially an entertainer fears boring his audience with a parade of pontificating experts. But are the vagaries of Wally Shawn, who explains the crash with incoherent metaphors involving ice cream cones, really the best he can do to provide a lucid exegesis of our economic woes from a left intellectual? Surely, New York Times Op-Ed columnist and Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman, an economist whose mild brand of social democracy resembles a more sophisticated version of Moore's sentimental liberalism, would have offered a more informative guide to the perplexed. It's true that the film does mine a few moments of tragicomic gold out of the so-called "Dead Peasant" loans that Wal-Mart and other corporations took out on some of their younger employees. (Rather mind-bogglingly, it is apparently perfectly legal for corporations to reap thousands, or even millions, of dollars from their employees' untimely deaths while refusing to share even a penny of the booty with the unfortunate workers' survivors.) http://moneycentral.msn.com/content/insurance/p64954.asp) But when it comes to the intricacies of sub-prime mortgages and "exotic" derivatives, the bearish guy with the baseball cap is far outdistanced by Leslie and Andrew Cockburn's heart-rending (and eminently accessible) American Casino.
There are, to be sure, a few moving and blessedly ungimmicky sequences near the end of the film-particularly a deserved lambasting of the Congressional bailout of Wall Street and a homage to the workers at Chicago's Republic Windows and Doors, gentle militants who occupied their factory last winter and successfully won back wages denied them after the CEO abruptly shut down the business. This hesitant rediscovery of the power of workers' control is effectively chronicled by interspersing this recent occupation with archival footage of the Flint, Michigan sit-down strike of 1936-1937.
Like a savvy Democratic politician, Moore combats accusations of being a dangerous pinko (and this in a film that ends with a jazzed-up version of the International on the end credits) by wrapping himself in the flag and Americana. Early reviews of Capitalism have compared it (both favorably and unfavorably) to the work of Frank Capra. And during the Q and A in Toronto (which was, to a certain extent, more illuminating than the film itself), Moore vociferously identified himself with the Popular Front of the 1930s (or what Michael Denning famously labeled "the cultural front" some years ago) by citing Capra, Preston Sturges, and John Steinbeck as among his heroes. None of these men were precisely leftists (and all mingled "progressive" sentiments with a certain conservatism.) All of them, especially Capra, are, however, usually associated with populism and Moore's defenders usually answer critics who insist that his films are manipulative and inordinately simplistic by maintaining that this approach is infinitely more appealing to a mass audience than the analytical, talking- heads orientation of more cerebral films. One of the most memorable moments in Capitalism in fact foregrounds his research team's discovery of moving footage of President Roosevelt advocating a "second bill of rights" (which would have included the right to health care, education, and employment) during the end of his 1944 State of the Union address (too ill to deliver the address to Congress, he explicitly instructed cameramen to film the speech's coda.)
Moore shares at least one key attribute with Barack Obama; like our genial if increasingly vacillating President, his enemies fuel his passion and provide him with more credibility than he would have otherwise. Without the crazies on the right, Obama would just seem like another disappointing neoliberal in the mold of Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council. Without years of fending off accusations of being a hotheaded liar from Fox News pundits and other "conservative" demagogues, Moore would just be another independent left-liberal filmmaker selling his wares (albeit a more successful one than most of his struggling brethren in non-fiction cinema.) Appropriately enough, the celebratory post-discussion of Capitalism with the TIFF audience inspired Moore to admit that this film's largely uncritical treatment of Obama clashes sharply with its justified evisceration of the trio he calls "Huey, Dewey, and Louie,"-Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, and Timothy Geithner-for their myopic endorsement of essentially neoliberal solutions to economic devastation. (To be fair, the film does remind us that Goldman Sachs was the single largest contributor to the President's campaign coffers) If Michael Moore can acknowledge his own cognitive dissonance (I almost wrote "even a blowhard like Michael Moore," but that would be heretical for Cineaste wouldn't it?), there might be hope for the ravaged U.S. economy after all.
Several documentaries featured in TIFF's documentary sidebar, Real to Reel, were both more modest in scope than Moore's shapeless diatribe and more satisfying. While these films deserve fuller coverage in the pages of Cineaste once they're in distribution, I'll just briefly list the most notable among those I've seen:
1. Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith's The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers (opening Wednesday at New York's Film Forum http://www.filmforum.org/films/mostdangerous.html) is an exemplary contribution to a non-fiction subgenre that's becoming increasingly popular: slightly hagiographic, if still compelling, biographical portraits of notable left-wing activists. (Other soon-to-be-released examples, neither of which are screening here, include William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe, Emily and Sarah Kunstler's bittersweet tribute to their late father and American Radical, David Ridgen and Nicolas Rossier's sympathetic portrait of Norman Finkelstein, the anti-Zionist scholar invariably described by one and all as "controversial."
2. Irish documentarians Carter Gunn and Ross McDonell's engrossing Colony- an investigation of the erosion of the bee population, otherwise known as "colony collapse disorder"-is only slightly marred by its preoccupation with the internal feuds of a family of devoutly Christian beekeepers.
3. Chris Smith's Collapse, a feature-length interview with Michael Ruppert, hero of the "peak oil" movement whose ferocious rants (or lamentations, if you like) decry modern society's failure to heed the lessons concerning our dwindling resources and the merits of "sustainability" outlined in his collective writings. A genial prophet of doom , Ruppert can be alternately viewed as a genius reviled by his countrymen or a monotonous crank.
Before I arrived in Toronto, the media furor generated by a petition protesting the alleged relationship between a "Brand Israel" campaign coordinated by the Israeli government in collaboration with a Canadian PR firm and a TIFF sidebar devoted to films set in Tel Aviv led me to believe that this issue would at least be the subject of chatter among my fellow journalists. Surprisingly, despite a tiny contingent of pro-Israel demonstrators outside one of the festival venues (who waved subtle banners proclaiming "Demonization of Israel=support for Global Jihad"), the protest turned out to be an apparent fizzle and my feeble attempts to elicit more information on the matter from local critics were met with polite indifference.
Although this brouhaha was triggered by filmmaker John Greyson's decision to withdraw his short from the festival, a follow-up column by Greyson's fellow petitioner Naomi Klein in the Globe and Mail maintained that this intervention was actually a protest, not a move towards a full-fledged boycott.
To shamelessly segue to another topic, if advance screenings of Atom Egoyan's unintentionally hilarious Chloe (a World Premiere just unveiled for the press on Monday) were held for groups of sex workers, they would probably have advocated a boycott of their own. A major embarrassment, although arguably a juicy guilty pleasure, Egoyan's overheated melodrama is a remake of a mediocre, if somewhat less risible, French chamber drama, Anne Fontaine's Nathalie (2003) . The ludicrous plot revolves around the efforts of Catherine Stewart, a well-heeled Toronto gynecologist (Julianne Moore in one of her most mechanical performances) to confirm suspicions concerning her husband David's apparent infidelity (Liam Neeson, in an equally lifeless turn, plays a moody academic). A fetching young call girl, the eponymous Chloe, (lovely, if bug-eyed, Amanda Seyfried gives a much more inventive performance than her distinguished costars in a thankless role) is Catherine's peculiar choice for a detective. Instructed to test David's susceptibility to adulterous lust by attempting to seduce him, Chloe proceeds, à la Terence Stamp in Pasolini's Teorema, to do her best to lure every member of this benighted family into bed. The painfully earnest Egoyan, best known for his films on technological alienation and sexual repression in frigid Canada, might have salvaged the material if he had even one humorous bone in his body. Instead, by demonizing the comely Chloe, the implication remains that he and his inept screenwriter, Erin Cressida Wilson, believe that hookers are inveterate home wreckers and perhaps even Spawns of Satan.
Since blogs offer opportunities to bypass conventional formats, I’ve decided—especially since conventional reviews are out of the question while on the road at a film festival—to devote the second (and final) installment of the Toronto update to itemizing (in alphabetical order, for lack of a better system; with luck I’ll hit on quasi-Borgesian categories) a compendium of my responses to key films and motifs in this year’s TIFF:
Ambivalence: Many critics are loath to formulate hard and fast critical judgments while viewing anywhere from three to six films a day during film festivals. Although I have to admit that I usually am fairly definite in my likes and dislikes, I occasionally feel a bit stymied as I attempt to grapple with ambivalent responses to certain films. Since the festival whirl forces one to perpetually respond to queries on the order of “Did’ya like it?” (and I’m equally guilty of posing the same question to other festival goers), instant critical assessments, whether one likes them or not, are, alas, inevitable.
Nevertheless, to cite one example from this year’s TIFF, I’m quite convinced that recent acclaim for Venice Golden Lion winner, Samuel Maoz’sLebanon, is seriously overblown. For one thing, almost every early review of this bloody drama set during the 1982 Lebanon War invokes a number of truisms that, after being incessantly repeated, tell us nothing—i.e. the film resembles Das Boat transferred to a tank, it’s “claustrophobic” etc. More importantly, if the protagonists’ emotionless murder of civilians (justified within the narrative, although not necessarily with the director’s endorsement, by the victims being used as human shields by terrorists) merely reiterates the hoary adage—“war is hell”— why should we view the film as at all innovative or more than a stunt? Finally, in light of the fact that there is no clear social, political, or ethical focus, how can Lebanon truly illuminate the ongoing Middle East crisis? At least Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir was clearly about personal catharsis, an aspect of the film that was justifiably tagged as slightly solipsistic by many viewers, especially Palestinians. The moral focus of Lebanon is even murkier and the oft-mentioned “claustrophobia” is little more than a hollow gimmick. In any case, the group dynamics among the tank members (petty infighting, smutty stories to relieve boredom) entail nothing we haven’t seen in scads of war films since at least the Forties, if not before.
Blondes: Towards the end of Claire Denis’s 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, in certain respects, a crystallization 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 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). But the insurrectionist sums up the consequences of being termed “white material,” an epithet for European settlers in Africa. Given Denis’s penchant for elliptical, even opaque, narrative construction, however, White Material ’s “material” is in truth fairly conventional. As one of the land of cinephilia’s best bloggers, Girish Shambu, observes 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 it might have benefited from being grounded in a specific political and historical framework. As it stands, White Material is not really much more subtle in its politics than middlebrow fare such as Out of Africa.
Manoel de Oliveira's Eccentricities of a Blonde Hair Girl, as the title indicates, is also partially consumed with the allure and perils of “blondness.” But this film by the distinguished centenarian and icon of Portuguese cinema is as succinct and witty as the Denis 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 this master being known for “difficult” work, refreshingly entertaining.
Canadian Cinema: Most American critics would not be caught dead at any Canadian film not directed by David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, or Guy Maddin. At the 2009 festival, curious filmgoers would have been much wiser to check out another Canadian entry, Vancouver-based Reginald Harkema’s Leslie, My Name is Evil, instead of relying on brand name considerations and falling for the hype promoting Atom Egoyan’s dreadful Chloe.
Harkema’s film is far from unproblematic; it is in fact intended as a provocation and 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’ 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” is to take 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; radicals and liberals will probably be even more irked than conservatives. One riposte to reviewers who have condemned Harkema’s film as replete with caricatures and chided a supposedly ahistorical decision to posit the Manson family as the embodiment of Sixties counterculture (see Kirk Honeycutt’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 latest 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 probably also not coincidental 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.
Some early viewers have been especially hard on Harkema for mocking one-dimensional Christians who serve as counterpoint to the Manson loonies (Perry, the juror radicalized by the trial, as well as his rigid father and ditzy fiancé). It is crucial to keep in mind that the agglutination of clichés function as distancing devices, not attempts to literally evoke actual “types.” Of course, whether Harkema’s updated alienation effects are successful will probably be a matter of debate if the film receives wider distribution outside Canada (doubtful where the U.S. is concerned since Harkema’s previous provocation, Monkey Warfare, never received a commercial release in the States.)
Upbeat Trajectories: Even though I usually avoid studio fare at festivals, the exigencies of scheduling sometimes force me, despite my better judgment, to end up at a film that will be released shortly. Early in the festival, I found myself at John Hillcoat’s The Road, a relatively faithful adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s best-selling novel. The novel is in McCarthy’s austere late style; the ornamental, Faulknerian cadences of his early work gives way to a prose style that critics compared, quite legitimately, to Samuel Beckett. On screen, the post-apocalyptic landscape of the novel (civilization has been decimated by an unspecified disaster, perhaps either nuclear war or environmental catastrophe) and its moral ambiguities is rather clumsily evoked. And rather distressingly, the feel-bad tone of the novel, complete with cannibalism, suicide, and generalized despair, succumbs to what is apparently conceived as a “morally upbeat” conclusion in the last scene. I have no objection to happy endings if they’re earned. And unhappy, or ambiguous, endings are frequently more contrived and unconvincing that legitimately happy resolutions. It’s also true that the novel also ends with a note of cautious optimism. What is most disturbing, though, is that Hillcoat’s ending comes off as considerably more saccharine and phony than McCarthy’s lyrical conclusion (and the last-minute appearance of Molly Parker as a redemptive earth mother doesn’t help.) The problem is more the lack of conviction and the sense that the audience is being pandered to, not the attempt to alleviate the gloom. I just hope that, if I ever have to endure a post –apocalyptic epoch, it won’t resemble a mediocre movie.
Hillcoat’s work is at least restrained and nominally intelligent—something that can‘t be said of Lee Daniels’ unbearable, virtually unwatchablePrecious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire (surely one of the most unwieldy film titles of all time; a film screened in Toronto which I saw last month in New York—and will also screen in the upcoming New York Film Festival). While I haven’t read the Sapphire novel in question, the movie inflicts a shopping list of horrors on the protagonist, an overweight young African-American woman, who then finds abrupt redemption through empathetic teachers and social workers as the credits approach. Tailor-made for Sundance (where it won both the dramatic grand jury drama prize and an audience award for best U.S. drama; it’s a good rule that, if a film wins a number of major awards at Sundance, it’s best to avoid it like the plague) and the inevitable television panel discussion by Oprah (one of the film’s producers), this is a movie that gives social realism a bad name. Trading on supposed compassion for the “less fortunate,” films like Precious actually represent the worst form of cinematic condescension.
Richard Porton is a Cineaste editor and author of Film and the Anarchist Imagination.
Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXV, No. 1