Sunday, December 7, 2008

You, the Living

Life is hell. It’s hard and ugly and too long when you’re young and too short when you’re old. It’s random and cruel and ridiculous. And people? God, don’t get me started on people. They’re beastly and vicious and selfish and ugly when they’re naked in the bathroom mirror. They make strange noises like grunts and farts and screams and “I don’t love you anymore” and “Don’t you think those pants are ugly?” They kill you. They cause traffic jams. When you get the best seat in the movie theatre they come and sit right in front of you, even if there are plenty of other empty seats. And then their cell phone rings during the best part of the movie and they sit there and chit-chat in Ukrainian about who-the-fuck-knows-what. Yes, life is hell.

What else can we do but cling to the little mercies? A stray kind word, a tasty piece of pie, kittens—whatever it takes to relieve the darkness and make it through another day on your lonely death-march to the sweet release of the grave.

You, the Living figures somewhere in this grim portrait as a bastion of hope and relief, even as it serves as a catalogue of squalor and despair. This latest bleak comedy from Sweden’s Roy Andersson is dark, jubilant, and strange, and considering Andersson is not a prolific director by any measure—four feature films since 1970, with this one taking three years to complete—that means a new film from him is that much more of a rare occasion to be savoured.

You can see the years of craft and care that went into this film. Andersson is not a typical narrative filmmaker, and like Songs from the Second Floor—the black comedy of pre-millennial madness that was his last film—You, the Living is essentially a series of intersecting vignettes, each one usually told with a single intricate shot. The film feels almost like a series of living paintings—each scene is a richly detailed and meticulously composed tableau filled with layers of action and sly background jokes. Careful viewing is rewarded. For example, in one scene, a psychiatrist addresses the camera, explaining how weary he has grown of his patients: “They are quite simply mean.” In the background in the doctor’s waiting room, Andersson contrasts this speech with a man consoling a woman by tenderly putting his arms around her. “These days, I just prescribe pills,” the doctor says.

People unable to see past their own personal sadness populate the film. Almost every character is trapped in a private emotional hell of his or her own creation, and if this makes the film sound oppressively grim, I should make clear that Andersson’s method is to expose this self-pity as ridiculous and comical. He looks to the absurdity of tragedy; his style offers a bemused distance from mundane misery as proof of Charlie Chaplin’s old line about how “life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” With its static style, bleak subjects, and surreal touches, You, the Living might appear rather forbidding and dense on the surface, but its goal is beautifully simple—Andersson asks us to stop worrying about our own misery and consider each other instead.

One of the funniest vignettes illustrates this point. A man named Benny is caught in traffic and declares to the camera that he had a dream in which he was sent to the electric chair. We then see the dream, beginning with Benny at a dinner party attempting to pull the tablecloth out from under the dishes. Unfortunately, the table is long and overloaded with dishes—the trick ends with him lying on his back having destroyed all the china. The scene changes to a court where Benny consoles his lawyer, who is too busy sobbing to defend him, while a woman laments that the dishes had been in her family for 200 years. He is convicted to death, of course.

As he is strapped in to the electric chair, someone offers him this brilliantly useless advice: “Try to think of something else.” How can you think of anything else as you’re being strapped into the electric chair? There is nothing left to think about but your own death. There is no consolation that remains. From behind a pane of glass in the gallery watching the execution, the woman’s complaint about the 200-year-old dishes is repeated as the recurring chorus of this whole dream.

The sequence is brutal and funny, and it captures the spirit of the film. Why be more concerned with a set of dishes than a man’s life? Throughout the film, people rarely pay attention to others. They are too pre-occupied with selfish concerns and petty complaints to treat each other decently (even the psychiatrist, going to work, finds his patients won’t hold the elevator door for him—he has to take the stairs). People become so obsessed with their own suffering that they forget to even enjoy whatever pleasures life has to offer. In one vignette about a couple having sex, the man simply lies there, complaining about his retirement savings, looking so skinny and pale he might as well already be dead.

Remarkably for a filmmaker who spends so much time focused on humanity at its meanest, Andersson is still filled with sympathy and fascination for his subjects. One of the sweetest scenes in the film comes towards the end, when Anna—who has spent much of the film crying over her unrequited love for a guitarist named Micke—describes a dream in which the pair is married and living in a house on a train. Through their window, we see the world rushing by in a blur while Micke plays his guitar. As they pull into the station, a huge crowd of strangers cheers for their happiness. The whole scene could easily devolve into mockery of the girl’s naiveté, or scorn for her inability to give up on her vain love for Micke, but the beauty of this strange, unrealizable dream fascinates Andersson. He has no interest in deriding the dreamer.

In the end, everyone looks to the sky and sees a fleet of bombers coming in, presumably to put an end to their sad, awful lives, which makes this film a backwards way of illustrating the old carpe diem theme. Instead of showing people who have grabbed at the pleasures of life, Andersson shows people who have neglected to seize the day and whose time has now run out.

Throughout the film, buoyant music is everywhere; as the bombers come in, a bouncy ragtime tune plays. Earlier in the film, we hear a similar song on the soundtrack while a man with a sousaphone plays along in his apartment. His wife screams at him to stop, slamming the door so hard that a picture falls off the wall and into their fish tank. In the apartment below, a man hits the ceiling so hard with a broom handle that the light fixture falls from the ceiling. Everyone seems deaf to the joy of the music itself.

A note on how I saw this film: Impatient with waiting for the film to finally open in North America (it premiered at Cannes in 2007 and has been wandering the festival circuit ever since), I downloaded a copy of the DVD screener using Bittorrent. Who knows if and when You, the Living will make its way to theatres around here? But at least it is out there, lurking on the horizon like one of those bombers at the end of the film, waiting to swoop down and blast us out of our miserable lives.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

EIFF: Gomorrah at the end of the festival

The Edmonton International Film Festival has been over for several days now, and yet I continue to churn out these entries, trying desperately to write about as many films as possible before they are all consigned to the graveyard of memory. Even as I type these words, I can feel the casket closing on Let the Right One In, a Swedish coming-of-age tale spiced up with vampires. That’s an oversimplification of what is actually an interesting little movie, but it has been lost in the blur of films I’ve seen since. I’ve given up on writing anything about it, save for these few words, which I offer in the way of apology and epitaph. Its sense of privileged intimacy reminded me of a secret shared between friends, and so what it said to me shall remain untold.

The reason I couldn’t find time to say anything else about Let the Right One In is for a simple and welcome reason—I was too busy watching other films. I began writing about this year’s festival with some anxiety about EIFF’s usual fondness for bottom-of-the-barrel crowd-pleasers, and the short film selection seemed to bear this out. The bulk of the short films I saw stuck mainly to a glib-cute tone that quickly grows wearisome when it dominates all other styles. There were a couple of stylish allegories that offered some relief, if not genuine satisfaction (The Eye and Next Floor), and at least one lovely, oblique mood piece (The 12th Alley, a lonely metaphysical bowling alley soliloquy), but these were the rare exceptions.

More common were variations on clichéd ideas, such as stories of kids trying to get their ball back from an elderly person (baseball in the case of A Pickle; soccer in the case of Because There Are Things You Never Forget) or the usual bland comedies about the war of the sexes (which probably covers about half of the short films at the festival). Still, the low point had to be From Little Things Big Things Grow, which is four minutes of hyper-cuteness that could spur even the softest heart to infanticide. School children dance as they sing the title song, a cheesy piece of self-esteem celebration that includes lyrics where the children all say what they want to be when they grow up. I appreciated the specificity of the kid who said he wants to be a graphic designer; I’m a little more concerned about the one who said she wants to be a mermaid. Trust in yourself, and you can do anything, even become an imaginary creature. That’s one to grow on, but I’m not sure what it’s doing in a film festival.

Despite my disappointment with this year’s slate of short films, the features offered some surprising gems. EIFF tends not to stray too far from the middle of the road, but they do occasionally swerve precariously close to the ditch. But to be fair, there were even some fine films that were a perfect match for the festival’s populist sensibilities. Consider Man on Wire, an excellent documentary by any measure, but also essentially an inspirational movie about a man following his dream. Still, it is not saccharine or condescending, but rather an elusive, moving film, and proof that a film can fulfill the crowd-pleaser mandate of EIFF without forsaking craft or ingenuity. Which is really just my way of saying that there is no excuse for pap like From Little Things Big Things Grow.

You may ask what is four minutes of discomfort in exchange for hours of pleasure, and you would be right—besides, part of the fun of watching short film programs is seeing stuff you normally would never go near. You may also ask what sort of misanthrope sneers at cute, cheerful children, and all I can say is now you know. But if am I to truly do this festival justice, how can I end on a such sour note? A true crowd-pleaser should end on some sort of positive, optimistic high. To that end, allow me to present one final review, this time for Gomorrah, a dense, powerful Italian mob epic directed Matteo Garrone.


Let me be clear on one thing: this is not a typical mob story. Near the beginning of the film, Garrone shows a couple of teenagers quoting dialogue from Scarface, as if to emphasize how far he strays from the usual glamorization of violence and wealth found in films about organized crime. Even the opening scene—a series of gruesome murders in a tanning salon—teases the audience with a promise of violence that is never quite fulfilled. The scene begins by mocking the vanity of these middle-aged, pudgy mobsters preening over their looks, but the sight of their dead bodies in the buzzing blue light of the tanning beds is a chilly taste of what is to come. There is no glorious final shoot-out for these men—death is ugly, swift, and brutal.

The reason for this stark contrast to the typical mob film is probably because Garrone has a very real target in this film: the Camorra, the oldest and one of the largest organized crime cartels in Italy. This isn’t some starry-eyed mob movie (as the teenagers quoting Scarface seem to believe they are starring in), but a drama that draws its purpose from real conditions. This is still fiction, but it is tied intimately to real problems posed by the Camorra.

The film is built out of multiple stories, most of which centre on characters from a single apartment complex, and the layers of walkways that make up the building mirror the various parallel narrative threads that run throughout the film. Some stories might seem almost recognizable, like that of the grocery boy who begins working for the Camorra despite his mother’s misgivings, or the two aforementioned Scarface-quoting teenagers who steal from the Camorra and openly defy its power. Others are more unique, such as the story of a tailor who secretly teaches workers at a Chinese garment factory, risking his life by helping one of the Camorra’s rivals. Another tale follows a young man who works as an assistant for one of the Camorra’s garbage disposal bosses, who roams from site to site, scrounging up new dumping grounds for dangerous waste.

None of these threads connect in any obvious way. Fate is not hurtling these people through space and time towards some sort of grand unity in the end; the Camorra has replaced fate. You defy the Camorra and you die, or else you join it and you die. The characters are linked through the Camorra, so that it becomes the great unifier in this film, the only unity possible in this poor place. It is entrenched in tradition and pervades the social order. In a telling shot, we see the grocery boy running drugs for the Camorra on one of the walkways in the apartment complex, and then the camera drifts to a wedding procession passing on the walkway below.

The film is filled with such striking moments. When the drivers responsible for transporting toxic waste refuse to work after one of their own is badly burned after a spill, the Camorra’s man rounds up a bunch of young children and tells them to each pick a truck. Hustling about in a game mood, he gathers cushions to allow them to see over the steering wheel, and Garrone shows the man triumphantly watching a procession of heavy machinery driven by children. It’s an absurd, comical sight, but obviously disquieting as well. Even better is a scene where a dying man lies on his bed, crucifix above his head, rasping “euro” over and over again, invoking a new god as capricious and cruel as the one of old.

There’s a grim humour to such images, even as they reveal the sick social order that has arisen because of the Camorra. Most of the characters struggle with finding a way out from under the Camorra’s influence, but the organization is simply too pervasive. It controls so many aspects of the economy that there doesn’t seem to be any way of leaving one Camorra business without somehow, even inadvertently, joining another. Indeed, the Camorra is the economy in this film, blurring the line between capitalism and crime until the two seem interchangeable. As average workers watch their savings and jobs disappear while executives get multi-million-dollar severance packages, this idea rings true no matter where you are. It might even be—dare I say it?—a bit of a crowd-pleaser.

Monday, October 6, 2008

EIFF: Momma's Man

American movies generally don't do maturity well. This probably sounds like specious generalizing considering my last two posts were about American films possessing mature worldviews (Rachel Getting Married and Sugar, in case your scroll function is mysteriously disabled), but I think the point is still valid. Between Hollywood escapism and the sort of cynicism and violence that often characterize movies marketed at adults, there isn’t much room for a film that opts for a more considered approach to life. Even the independents aren’t much help at this point, with the current vanguard of young filmmakers preoccupied with solipsistic stories about twenty-somethings falling in and out of love (I’m talking about mumblecore here, and may you all have mercy on me for using that ridiculous term).

None of my curmudgeonly carping should discount the fact that good cinema can arise from any of these groups; I certainly don’t want to make any blanket dismissals here. I just want to make a point that maturity is a rather neglected theme, which is why Momma’s Man is so welcome and ultimately so disappointing.

Directed by Azazel Jacobs, the film tells the story of Mikey, who, after visiting his parents in New York, finds he is unable to return to his wife and new-born child in California for reasons purely psychosomatic. Staying with his parents is a kind of prolonged adolescence, and he seems unable to give it up. He begins to lie to everyone—his wife, his coworkers, his parents—in a vain, self-defeating effort to remain inside that place of comfort and security. He begins to steep himself in talismans from his past, reading comic books and old notebooks from high school. In one particularly funny scene, he even plays an angst-ridden song aimed at a former girlfriend that he wrote as a teenager (the chorus, delivered in a whisper because his parents are trying to sleep, is mostly just, “Fuck / Fuck / Fuck / Yoooouuuuu!”).

Despite such moments of humour, the film is underlined with melancholy. Jacobs casts his own parents as Mikey’s parents in the film, and the apartment used in the film is the actual Jacobs home. The film is often at its most poignant as an affectionate portrait of Jacobs’ parents. Surely any adult who has stayed with their parents for a few days will recognize this situation and identify with Mikey’s desire to stay there, freed of responsibility. But behind that desire is the knowledge that this sanctuary is beginning to fade away. When Mikey is talking to his wife at one point, he justifies staying in New York by telling her, “You don’t know what it’s like to watch your parents grow old.” He back pedals right after he speaks (presumably her parents are dead), but the words show the rest of the film in a strange light, making it seem as if Jacobs is casting his own future sorrow over the death of his parents as the subject of the film.

Sadly, the film only glances that emotion. More often, it retreats into its humour, which, while at times enjoyable, lacks any real traction in the story—it has nowhere to go in the rather barren landscape of the film. Mikey’s continual lying casts a dark shadow over the film’s more whimsical moments, but Jacobs doesn’t really know how to handle it. Even when Mikey’s father discovers his son's lying ways, nothing comes of it. Now, I don’t expect a film with this kind of quiet, fragile mood to resort to shouting melodramatics, but a film that doesn’t seem to believe in consequences can’t help but feel a little inconsequential.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

EIFF: Sugar

This film breaks my heart. It isn’t the story that’s to blame, though the film is certainly moving at times. No, it’s the fact that this is one of those modest but inherently decent little films that seem to be shuffling through theatres on a path to some sort of oblivion—it will live on, but just barely, subsisting on scattered DVDs in a few video stores, doomed to be pawed for eternity by uncomprehending renters who pick it up only to put it down disdainfully after reading the back and not seeing any recognizable names. Like any other animals, these people know the scent of the sickly and weak and avoid it at all costs.

But that is hardly a just fate for this film. Sugar is by no means a great work, but it is a very good one, and its merits are rare enough that they should be seized upon by others. Unfortunately, the screening I went to was poorly attended, with only around 20 to 30 people in the crowd—a stark contrast to Half Nelson, the previous film from Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, which sold out its screening at EIFF two years ago. To be fair, Half Nelson had the benefit of a recognizable lead actor (Ryan Gosling) and a juicy premise (inner city high school teacher buys drugs from one of his students), while Sugar contains a cast of unknowns and tells the rather unglamorous story of a young man from the Dominican Republic drafted into the minor leagues.

This is certainly one of the most mundane sports films I’ve ever seen, and I mean that as a compliment. Miguel Santos (nicknamed Sugar for various reasons, which seem to change depending on what he’s doing at the time) never rises above the minor leagues. His American baseball career begins and ends with a Single-A team in Bridgetown, Iowa. Unsurprisingly, the film’s treatment of baseball is scaled to this level, meaning that there are no big make-or-break games, no bases-loaded, bottom-of-the-ninth moments of redemption.

In fact, this is not even a “baseball movie” in the normal sense. More than anything, this is the story of a young man coming to terms with what he wants from life, as well as a poignant recasting of the typical immigrant story. Sugar comes to America with ideas of baseball glory looming in his imagination. He brags of his great pitching abilities and even shows enough talent to become the toast of the team for a while, but once he is sidelined by an injury, his game never really recovers. However, there is a steady stream of other players from the Dominican Republic and elsewhere to take his place, and Sugar finds himself caught in the strange bind of having been brought to a country where he is no longer really wanted or needed.

Boden and Fleck tell this story simply, but eloquently. Their greatest virtue as filmmakers—and the reason I feel so saddened by this film’s presumable failure in the marketplace—is their ability to approach their characters in a way that is sympathetic and yet still critical. They are aware of the cruelty of this system that chews up talent, while being careful never to sneer at anyone who is caught up in it. Even as a coach is scolding Sugar for smashing a water cooler in a burst of rage, the filmmakers find ways to suggest more depth in this man, who other films would just dismiss as a stock character. The coach implies that he knows exactly what Sugar is going through, and as he speaks, his voice becomes more charged and emotional, his face becoming pained at a memory playing out as he speaks.

There’s another movie contained in that brief spark of emotion, one that follows the coach from his own youthful glory days to his decline, and reveals the quiet sadness of his job watching youngsters fall into the same traps that he did. The film does not always live up to the promise of such richly suggestive moments—some supporting characters, such as the small-town Christian girl Sugar develops a crush on, never quite rise above the level of sketches. But when the film does reveal the nuances of a character in a few lines of dialogue, you really feel the strength of Boden and Fleck as filmmakers.

This deep-rooted empathy prompted Half Nelson to its unsettling moral quandaries, but Sugar is comparatively more modest in reach, even if it still shows itself acutely aware of the political implications of its story. The film is certainly no polemic, but the tenderness of the drama suggests that the real purpose is to encourage an understanding of the difficulties facing a foreigner in a strange country. And even though the film mainly sticks to the intimacy and immediacy of Sugar’s problems, it still nods towards the larger scale of these issues when Sugar discovers an entire weekend league of discarded latino players, all of whom now only play for the love of the game as they struggle to carve out some place for themselves in American society.

After showing off his pitching prowess to his new friends, Sugar sits down on the bench amidst cheers and congratulations. A sorrowful look appears on his face, just for a moment, before a grin finally appears. Even as he celebrates what he has gained, he seems painfully aware of everything he has lost. It’s a quiet yet profoundly moving moment, and proof of the merit of Boden and Fleck’s approach, which displays great sympathy and humanity without ever descending into sanctimony and superficiality.

Friday, October 3, 2008

EIFF: Rachel Getting Married

Jean-Luc Godard once described one of his films as a “neorealist musical,” and while I doubt he would approve of this use of the term, I can’t help but feel it was made for a movie like Rachel Getting Married, Jonathan Demme’s buoyantly told story of a woman getting out of rehab to go to her sister’s wedding.

In making this film, Demme employs what is probably the most common marker of cinematic “realism” these days—the shaky, handheld camera that so many other directors have used as a lazy short-cut to building a sense of being in the moment. However, Demme’s use of this method is hardly laziness; rather, he displays a great deal of self-discipline and skill in how he tells the story. Scenes rarely feel forced or stagy, and the film has a kind of home-movie immediacy that comes from all of the clutter and people wandering in and out frame.

The music, however, is what really matters here. The film is built around music, but at the same time, it approaches the music on realist terms. There is no non-diegetic sound in this film; everything emanates from within the space of the story. Even the music played during the closing credits comes from peripheral characters in the film who are jamming in the backyard after the wedding is over.

In spite of this one constriction, the film is still dripping in music, oozing it from every moment, at times almost absurdly (the film’s style may say “realism,” but there’s something surreal about seeing Robyn Hitchcock singing at a Connecticut wedding). The family is surrounded by musician friends, so the score of the film largely comes from these people hanging around the house, practising their parts for the wedding. The groom even sings his wedding vows, and quite well it should be added, seeing as how the character is played by Tunde Adembimpe of TV on the Radio (who brings a nice geeky awkwardness to the groom, most memorably in a tour-de-force dishwasher loading sequence).

More so than teary-eyed speeches and shouting arguments, the music elaborates the emotions of the characters, as it should in any musical. At times, it is sentimental, other times simply jubilant, and it even occasionally verges on sarcastic (at one point, a couple of kids practise a version of “Here Comes the Bride” that calls to mind Jimi Hendrix doing “Star Spangled Banner”). But most importantly, this approach turns the film into a curious hybrid, beholden neither to the demands of realist drama nor Hollywood melodrama.

It’s a pleasant surprise. I really wasn’t expecting such a charming, idiosyncratic film to come out of this story. The premise flirts with the maudlin and cliche, but it never really succumbs, which is admirable when you consider what we’re dealing with here. There’s Kym, fresh out of rehab, whose acid-tongued remarks and sarcastic demeanour hide the guilt and self-loathing she feels for her involvement in the accidental death of her younger brother (yes, a dead child story. It’s one of those movies). Then there is Rachel, the more successful, stable sibling who feels resentment at Kym for disrupting what is supposed to be a perfect wedding day with ugly emotional truths, family conflicts better left buried, et cetera. This is well-trodden emotional terrain we’re walking on.

But the conventional melodrama in the script that is trying to make itself heard never quite comes through—the songs just drown it out. The music inspires a loose-limbed approach from Demme that is miles away from the stiffness of his last fiction film, The Manchurian Candidate. Even as the script is pulling towards confrontation and catharsis, Demme is pushing the film towards something more open-ended, less easily defined, and ultimately, more rewarding.

The final confrontation, that last emotional bloodletting that would put everything in its place, mercifully never comes. Instead, we are left with things left unsaid, arguments never finished. In other words, a family like any other.

EIFF: Man on Wire

In 1974, Philippe Petit set up a wire between the two towers of the World Trade Center and walked across it. In fact, he crossed it eight times, spending 45 minutes on a wire 110 stories above the ground.

It would be hard to make a dull documentary out of such a remarkable story. After all, how could a man who snuck into the World Trade Center to do a wire-walking performance be boring? But even beyond the obvious interest of the subject matter, this is an exceptional documentary, well-crafted and haunting. At times, it is part love story, charting Petit’s obsession of the towers from afar, showing the towers being built alongside images of his childhood, as if their meeting was somehow destiny (as one friend of Petit says, the towers were built for Philippe, of course).

At other times, it feels like a heist movie as it follows the elaborate plotting and preparation required in setting up the stunt. Petit cases the joint, as if it were a bank he was breaking into. He takes pictures, makes diagrams, and builds models to figure out where to place the wire. He impersonates a French newspaper journalist and manages to get in with a couple of friends in order to take photographs of the top of the building and quiz workers on safety hazards. True to heist movie form, there’s even an inside man.

Petit possesses an undeniable hint of megalomania. As his former girlfriend notes, when she met him, it was just assumed she would follow his destiny—whatever path she might have for her own life, it was secondary to his own. Still, the man is incredibly charismatic. As he describes his obsession, his plans, his great schemes, he talks rapidly, hands whirling about as if he were physically conjuring up his memories. He’s a superb story-teller, witty and self-dramatizing, and yet his intensity is never off-putting.

Maybe this is because there is a purity to Petit’s goal. He doesn’t seem preoccupied with wealth or fame. He just wants to walk between the towers because they’re the tallest in the world, because it would simply be a great thing to do and share with others. You start to understand his mania when you actually see the wire walk—the event is captured in stills and video footage so grainy that sometimes it seems like the wire isn’t even there, that he actually might be walking on thin air. In one image, he has a great, broad grin on his face, caught in mid-laugh. In another, he lies down on the wire, completely casual and calm. Having conquered such height, he makes it seem like the distance between the sky and ground has collapsed. He might as well be inches from the street.

It’s a remarkable moment, and the film allows it to speak for itself. In fact, I’m not sure if anyone could possibly put words to such a moment. When one of Petit’s childhood friends and co-conspirators tries to explain what happened on that day, he can’t do it. He trails off, buries his face in his hands, and simply cries.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

EIFF: 12

Not having seen the original 12 Angry Men, I can only imagine how this Russian version compares—and anyway, I doubt the similarities and differences are particularly important to an appreciation of the film. This is more of a Russian take-off on the premise of the Hollywood original, with the defendant a Chechen youth accused of killing his adoptive Russian father, and the jurors all standing in for the different strata of contemporary Russian society.

I admit that there’s something kind of fun about this film, even as it flirts with, and finally succumbs to, the inherent absurdity of its set-up. Maybe I was a little charmed by the conviction and energy it brings to its most ridiculous conceits. If you can’t go for subtlety, you might as well at least go for gusto, right? But very quickly, the film falls into the rhythm it sustains for almost the entirety of its two and a half hour running time: a juror delivers an impassioned speech about his personal history, and then changes his vote on the verdict. This is Acting, capital-letter style—red-faced, spittle flying, strings on the score, camera cutting between close-ups of the speaker and the other jurors, who often sit agape in silence (probably mentally rehearsing the lines for their own monologues, I like to imagine).

If nothing else, this is entertaining bombast, although its formula does begin to increasingly grate on the nerves. I appreciate the point—that to be truly merciful and just we must see our own suffering in the lives of others—but between all the scenery-chewing, the characters barely find time to actually justify the innocence of the accused (and I should add that the scenery being chewed in this case is a school gymnasium, which if nothing else gives an indication of the sophomoric acrobatics we’re in store for) .

This monologue method reaches its most frenzied peak when one juror delivers a bizarre, rambling speech about how his uncle inadvertently became regarded as a terrorist. As the man speaks, he paces furiously around the table where everyone sits, watching in amazement and confusion. The man is pacing so fast he is almost running, and the speech is punctuated by the sound of an alarm clock periodically going off in his suitcase, which he kicks until the ringing stops. To top it off, he pulls out a bottle of nasal spray in the middle of speaking and sprays first into his nostrils, then his eyes, and finally, inexplicably, his ears.

This is funny stuff, if only for how it parodies the other speeches—the distracting pacing, the nonsensical actorly tic of the nasal spray—but it also makes the audience conscious of the posturing of the other actors. As we dutifully move from speech to speech, the absurdity of applying this method to every single character becomes increasingly apparent, and the whole formula reduces the accused to something of an after-thought. Ultimately, the film is hokum, plain and simple. Well-intentioned, delivered with panache, but hokum all the same.

(I should note that 12 was nominated for a best foreign film Oscar last year, which should come as no surprise. The Academy has always been a sucker for this sort of high-powered entertainment with a gloss of social significance. Of course, it lost to the World War II movie.)

EIFF: I Served the King of England

A prickly fable about a Prague waiter’s rise and fall in the 1930s and ‘40s, I Served the King of England moves between moments of scathing satire and passages of florid romanticism. It’s a strange approach, but the result is a beautiful film about ugliness, brutally funny and wise.

The waiter in question, Jan Diti, is a small man with large ambitions, who possesses not only the mischievous mannerisms of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp, but also that same lack of guile. Diti seems quite innocent, and as a result, is ripe for corruption. The film charts his rise in fortunes, from his beginnings as a waiter in a local bar to bigger and wealthier establishments where he measures his own worth by the importance of those he serves. All the while, the world slips steadily into World War II, and Diti continues his pursuit of wealth and power, seduced by pleasure and driven by a very innocent but unmistakable greed.

The film’s style is broad enough to include a parody of silent-film comedy, while also engaging in vividly poetic touches, like the woman who—to spite Diti’s employer for reprimanding the waiter after spilling a drink—pours two glasses of raspberry grenadine over her head. As she walks down the street, bees flutter about her, drawn to her sweetness. If this sounds a tad ridiculous, that’s because it is, and if it sounds beautiful, that’s because it is too.

In a different film, such flights of whimsy might seem unbearably precious, but I Served the King of England is grounded in a scabrous sense of humour. Sex and politics intertwine uncomfortably. Greed is routinely skewered with contemptuous glee. In a running gag, Diti delights in throwing his spare change on the ground in front of millionaires, and then stepping back to smile smugly as they drop to their knees and dig for a few coins to add to their fortunes.

And yet throughout, Diti remains a seemingly harmless, sympathetic fellow, even as he begins to ape Hitler’s hairstyle and blithely winds up collaborating with the Nazis. The film, much like Diti, proceeds through events in a hapless, bemused manner, but beneath its droll surface is a troubling story of how easily innocence is made complicit with evil.

Monday, September 29, 2008

EIFF: Roman de Gare

You could almost convince yourself that this is a good film. With its convoluted thriller stratagems, the film—directed by Claude Lelouch—proudly displays its cleverness, but I kept wondering when this cleverness would take flight into something truly imaginative and unique. Sadly, when you start to poke at the cracks in this film, it reveals that its only secret is that it has no secrets to give up. Lelouch’s approach to the complexities of his plot is stubbornly literal, revealing only his lack of imagination.

The story is too complicated to summarize—you either tell it all or tell nothing. At best, I can only describe the various balls the film juggles: Judith, the famous writer whose novels are ghost written; a mystery man who may be either Judith’s ghost writer, an academic who has abandoned his job and family, or an escaped pedophile/serial killer called “the magician”; and finally Huguette, a Parisian hair dresser who is abandoned by her fiance at a gas station after an argument and gets picked up by the mystery man as a result.

The problem lies in that mystery man. There’s something very disappointing in watching a director construct such an elaborate plot just for the purposes of playing a shell game with the audience. Someone with more patience than I could perhaps argue that Lelouch is showing how reality bleeds into fiction and vice versa, but I think that’s giving him more credit than he deserves. All that matters in this film is the cold machine of the plot, and the result is rather unsurprisingly a lifeless, mechanical film.

The only recognizable human emotion in the film is the vanity of the director; reduced to the role of pawns, the characters are in no position to make demands upon the audience. When the wife of the missing academic confesses that she can’t stop thinking about the detective handling her husband’s case, the audience’s response is to laugh because these characters are little more than jokes. The woman’s loneliness, her grief, her love—none of it is real, none of it matters, just as all the love and hate experienced by the other characters is of no consequence as well. Everything in the film is mere grist for the gears of the plot-machine.

And when the cold machine that seemed at first so impressive finally begins to break down with ridiculous, desperate third-act revelations, that doesn’t leave you with much, does it? All that remains once the machine breaks is a lump of useless metal—and it’s ready for scrap before the credits even finish rolling.

Edmonton International Film Festival 2008: Pontypool and other things

You can tell the time has come when the leaves turn auburn and yellow on the lone tree growing amidst the concrete-grey of downtown Edmonton. When the cold wind sends the ripe odour of the sewers hustling through the downtown streets and people actually seem eager to enter the City Centre Mall, that’s how you know the Edmonton International Film Festival has returned for another year.

Our adventure through this year’s slate of films promises to be a perilous one. The risk of encountering something abominably banal is an omnipresent concern, for the important thing to remember about the Edmonton International Film Festival is that its schedule always contains at least a few wretched cast-aways that no other self-respecting film festival would dare to touch.

As you examine the schedule, you can't avoid these earnest, well-meaning “crowd-pleasers,” to use a phrase thrown about with reckless abandon in the program guide—movies about fatal disease, mental or physical handicaps, Neil Diamond tribute acts. They litter the schedule like land mines and you proceed at your own peril.

This might sound like pure snobbery, but let me give an example of one of these films that I’ve already inadvertently stumbled across this year. It was called Heroes (Wings Are Not Necessary to Fly), a Spanish documentary short about an armless techno DJ.

All of the traditional markers of a crowd-pleaser were present—blandly likable subject, inspirational tale of someone overcoming adversity, and a familiar narrative shape. But as a documentary, the film was barely competent, with a tone that ranged from innocuously dull to flat-out condescending. The interview questions, when not just embarrassingly generic, were transparently leading, reaching an absolute nadir when the film started showing people on the street being asked what is a hero. Of course, this is the incompetent’s method of telling us the armless DJ is a hero, but I think I would have preferred for the director to simply come on camera and shout this at the audience. It would have been much quicker than having to listen to all of the stock answers to that stock question. In the end, the short amounted to little more than friends and family members speaking pleasant generalities about the armless DJ. It would probably be a nice film to play at his wedding, or maybe his funeral.

Such is the dark side of EIFF’s populist mandate: pandering, amateurish junk. Fortunately, the schedule offers enough variety that these films are not the only options, but you must navigate with great care. The festival likes to suggest that it is for anyone who loves movies, which is a nice thought, but that also means it has to love the movies of the lowest common denominator.

But I’ll spare you any more of my complaints. Any festival has some sort of dross mixed in with the quality work, and if the festival isn’t in a position to be discriminating at least I am. Let us move on to the gala opener, Pontypool, Canadian director Bruce McDonald’s latest feature.


A few years ago, the festival featured The Five Obstructions, a film in which Lars von Trier challenges fellow director Jorgen Leth to remake a short film under several arbitrary constraints. The most obvious lesson of the film is that creativity is spurred by obstacles—in fact, the most difficult challenge in the film is to remake the short film without any constraints. I mention this because Pontypool is a film compelling chiefly because of the limitations it places upon itself.

The film is set in a radio station located in the basement of a small-town church. The cast features only a handful of people, although there are some anonymous extras and a few people who appear only through voice. Events unfold in a very short span of time. The film is beautifully lean in its construction.

The premise is equally simple. A disease of unknown origin breaks out, spurring people to acts of baffling violence and outbursts of indecipherable gibberish. We hear of riots, gruesome deaths, military intervention—the usual stuff for this sort of pseudo-zombie movie, in other words.

But all of this chaos occurs off-frame, told through phone calls, police reports, rumours, and hypotheses relayed through the radio station, which we never leave for the duration of the film. The three characters trapped in the station seem both at the centre of the action and curiously removed from it. The film superbly evokes the blindness that lies at the heart of any media frenzy, where we can feel connected to events while remaining completely ignorant of what is actually happening. At one point, Grant Mazzy, the radio station’s embittered DJ, says that he needs to go outside and see what is going on, despite having been conveying that information to his listeners for hours. It just doesn’t feel real, he explains.

That unreality is what makes the film so unnerving. If you see some horror-movie monstrosity, it frightens you at first, but there is also something almost comforting about its physicality. However realistic it might seem, you know that it is just a combination of fake blood, latex, and makeup. The horror is lessened as it becomes tangible. It is subject to the same laws as the rest of us, and thus reduced to our level.

In Pontypool, the horror mainly exists outside the frame and as a result retains its oppressive power. Although there are a few more traditional confrontations in the film that allow the horror to assert its physical presence, the characters are mostly helpless before the incomprehensible terrors outside their door. That said, I don’t wish to do a disservice to the film by making it seem like a grim death march; in fact, it is lively and witty, and by the end it has built itself up to such a pitch it seems almost giddy or elated, drunk on its own energy. When the screen goes black, it has all the impact of the world exploding.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Pissing in the Void

As the exchange of ideas becomes the muzak that plays over the clamorous shifting of capital, there is a growing sense of futility in any attempt at communication. What worth is there in another voice, when already so much has been said to so little effect? I cannot deny the suspicion that the highest form of eloquence in these info-saturated times is silence. We can say anything and so we do, and in the deluge of words that follows all that we say loses its power until speaking seemingly robs us of our voice.

In light of that, I feel I must abandon any hope of my words reaching others living in this time. I can only write this blog for those distant descendants two or three centuries in the future who might accidentally stumble across this long-abandoned blog as they sort through the rubble of the flimsy techno-utopia we are still yet building for ourselves. Some future archaeologist—let’s call him Greg—will most likely stumble across a rusty Google Machine under a tarp in a farmer’s barn and fire it up, the dry gears grinding as the grey chassis leaks oil and user-targeted advertisements.

As he wanders the dusty, deserted plains of cyberspace, he’ll come across this humble, long-abandoned blog—a ghost town in a decaying corner of the once-vibrant information landscape. What remains of my words will be the ghostly music that fills the empty halls, like a player piano babbling its tinny tune long after the last resident has left. He’ll look around the abandoned buildings with bemused curiosity, opening cupboards at random and peeking in closets as if expecting to stumble across a quiet, huddling figure who would put a finger to his lips and, with a conspiratorial air, motion to close the door again.

I can only imagine that this Greg person would stumble across this rather insignificant page by searching for the phrase “Pissing in the Void,” a rather despairing neo-Situationist slogan spray painted on the libraries decades in the future. By the time Greg finds me, the libraries will surely be empty, converted into apartment buildings and abattoirs; undoubtedly, the concept of books will be abandoned for the sake of digitizing all information--a natural result of our race’s desire to archive all human achievement while simultaneously destroying it (I believe butterfly collectors work under a similar principle). Only with such expectations can I create this humble film blog, and I dedicate it to Greg three hundred years from now.

But what is this film of which he speaks, Greg will wonder, and I—as if anticipating this thought three hundred years hence—will write: it is a form of stupefaction, a waking dream in which we are given a choice between communing with ourselves or others, and more often choose the former.

No doubt Greg will look up from the glowing holo-screen of the Google Machine and scratch his head (probably with one of the cybernetic arms attached to his lower back or whatever cure the future has for itchiness) and say to himself, well, that really explains nothing.

Somewhere in the twenty-first century, I will reply, okay, it’s like this: a man walks into a bar and orders a drink. He drinks it. It tastes good. He orders another, and another, and another, until finally, the owner kicks him out for picking fights with the barmaid and the man stumbles into the street where he falls flat on his face and then vomits. That is a novel.

Now, a man walks into a bar and orders a drink. He drinks it. It tastes good. He gets up and calls his friend and says, I ordered this drink and drank it and it tasted good. Come by and have one. So the friend comes by and has one, and he agrees that it tastes good. So he gets up and calls one of his friends and says, I ordered this drink and drank it and it tasted good. So his friend comes by and has one, and he agrees, and so on until the bar is full and the owner has to hide his telephone and he kicks them all out for picking fights with the barmaid, and they all stumble into the street and each and every one of them fall on their face and then they all vomit (because you know how it is, one starts and then everyone else gets queasy and it spreads). That is a film.

At this point, Greg will cock his second head (for I assume everyone in the future will have at least two) and say to himself, well, now I‘m even more confused.

Somewhere in the twenty-first century, I will elaborate….

Upon consideration, Greg will say….

Somewhere in the twenty-first century, I will reply….

After careful thought, Greg will ask….

And so on.

That’s Kino in Purgatory.