Saturday, October 3, 2009

EIFF: Day Nine

Okay, so I've blinked away the scum that coated my eyes after watching Pirate for the Sea, and I've cleared my head and thought only positive thoughts all day. Now I'm ready to write up the last two films I saw at the film fest.

Dammit, I don't want to hate any more movies. I'm so tired of hating movies, and I feel my prose growing gnarled and hunchbacked as I scowl through another review of more EIFF mediocrity. Just give me a bright spot to go out on, that's all I ask. Not just for me, I ask, but for the suffering few who might read this blog. Oh lord, please, spare the innocent.

Passenger Side

And yet, here I am tempting my own wrath by going to see a quirky Canadian comedy-drama that seems aimed straight down the middle-road of independent filmmaking. Perhaps I bring this on myself.

A sometimes charming but clearly flawed film, Matt Bissonnette's Passenger Side follows a pair of brothers as they drive across Los Angeles in a day. Various eccentric characters are encountered along the way, their chief reason for being apparently to help the film reach feature length. Some moments are funny, to be fair—an encounter with a hermaphrodite hooker is downright surreal, actually—but mostly these digressions just add to a sense of a film lost and struggling to find its bearings.

But let it not be said that Passenger Side is not without its virtues as well. I found myself enjoying the fraternal interplay of Joel Bissonnette and Adam Scott, even as they were saddled with sometimes overwritten, unnatural dialogue (call it a case of DCD, or Diablo Cody's Disease). And Matt Bissonnette finds some surprising emotional depths in these two characters as we move from glib, jokey exchanges to more complicated family dynamics. There's some meat to this rather slender premise.

Unfortunately, the film stumbles in the final moments, and not just a minor, slip-on-the-wet-grass kind of fall—this is a full-on, tumble-face-first-into-a-brick-wall-because-your-pants-fall-down kind of wipe-out. It's as if the film is afraid to follow through with its modest ramble of a tale and has to somehow instill a sense of narrative payoff at the end of the journey. Inexplicably, we end with a plot twist, which feels somewhat incongruous considering the film's general lack of a plot in the first place. Sensitive little dramedies just shouldn't have big "gotcha" moments.

Love at the Twilight Motel

Ah, final film of the fest. At last we reach the end. Tell me, little film, what will you offer me? Pleasure, or pain?

Perhaps both? A compelling documentary about the pain of pleasure, Alison Rose's Love at the Twilight Motel offers a glimpse into the lives of the clientele at a shady Miami motel that charges $25 for the first two hours. Rose interviews seven different people, ranging from Cadillac (a recovering junkie) to Gigi (a 46-year-old overweight escort) to Richard (a Cuban rafter who works as a massage therapist and claims he was destined to have lots of affairs with married women).

The use of the word "love" in the title might be misleading, as this motel is not really in the business of love, but rather sex. The interviewees muse on what it means to be faithful and the distinction between sex and love, in the process offering insight into the torturous ways we rationalize and compartmentalize our lives. It is to the director's credit that she doesn't try to force an artificial argument on the film, but rather allows each interview to provoke its own conclusions.

Mr. B, for instance, is a happily married man who professes to adore his wife, even as he admits that she can't satisfy him sexually. However, his use of the motel goes beyond mere infidelity, as he elaborates on his use of heroin and shoots up for the benefit of the documentary crew. In one remarkable moment, he even receives a text message from his wife asking where he is. He sighs—"I hate lying," he explains—and then decides to pretend that his phone has died. The problem isn't that he's bad at lying, according to him, but rather that his wife seems to believe whatever he says, suggesting a certain contempt for her gullibility even as he emphasizes his love for her. Near the end of his interview, he concludes that he is a functional junkie. Considering the vast schism between his family life and motel behaviour, functional schizophrenic might be more accurate.

And this is just one of the twisted personal stories we discover. All of the interviewees offer some startling personal revelations—so many, in fact, that the film might start to feel like a bit of a gratuitous exercise in revelling in the sordid underbelly, a walk on the wild side for us all-too-boring gawkers in the audience.

But the film is too thought-provoking (and beautifully composed, incidentally) to be dismissed. Issues of how and why people isolate sex from emotion arise, as do questions of how repression affects our personal lives. We meet prostitutes struggling with past sexual abuses and self-justifying philanderers who seem blind to their own contempt for women. We see people filled with self-loathing and, surprisingly, others serene and content. All people struggling to find a measure of peace, but none quite sure of the route.

It's a fine film, and certainly an excellent way to conclude my festival-going for another year. Thankfully.

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