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.