Friday, October 2, 2009

EIFF: Days Seven and Eight

Fair warning: this is a pretty dire post. Three films, only one keeper, and that by Michael Haneke no less, which is a bit like saying the best part of your vacation to Singapore was the caning.

Enter if you dare. I'll try to remember to go see some good films tomorrow.

Those Three

I'm struggling with how to summarize this one. Maybe try to imagine a version of Andrei Tarkovksy's Stalker that is somehow half the running time and yet feels twice as long—that captures some of the stultifying power of this film, which often does feel like a clumsier version of Tarkovsky's mystical wonders. Better yet—how about a humourless version of Waiting For Godot in which everyone dies and then a pregnant woman walks on stage and delivers a baby.

No, wait, that actually sounds kind of fun.

Or at the very least, more fun than this monotonous little Iranian film about three military deserters who wander a snowy plain where they meet a pregnant woman and then die of exposure. Along the way, there are a few other incidents of note—a few squabbles, a random encounter or two, but nothing of great significance. Essentially, we watch three figures wandering an endless white landscape, blotted out by the environment. Aside from the occasional tree, there are no landmarks, just a seemingly eternal, numbing haze.

I suppose writer/director Naghi Nemati is going for a spectral anti-military film in which our three protagonists head off in dangerous terrain rather than stay in the army. They face the inclement world, suffer at its hands and die, while a baby comes into this same cruel environment at the end as a symbol of future hope or continued suffering or—who cares, really? I get bored just writing about this earnest, thoroughly unimaginative attempt to convey so many banal concepts. Never before have I been so conscious of the fact that going to the theatre is nothing more than staring at a white sheet for an hour and a half.

The White Ribbon

I'm a little ambivalent about the films of Michael Haneke. He's undeniably a brilliant director, but his depictions of middle-class alienation often have the feeling of an expert marksman with a barrel of fish. Sometimes I just wish he would apply all that formal rigour of his to something completely outside of his comfort zone instead of gunning down the same easy targets each time.

As it stands, The White Ribbon does seem like a bit of a broadening of Haneke's usual world, however slight that expansion might be. True, this depiction of an Austrian village set just before the First World War is in many ways a typical Haneke excursion into cinematic water-boarding, but there are also surprising moments of tenderness and humour. The narrator, Lehrer, is a schoolteacher who behaves honourably and kindly, without even a trace of the wanton cruelty that defines so many Haneke characters, including a great many of those who populate this film. And I never would have believed people might laugh at a Haneke film unless I heard it myself, but the scenes revolving around a pastor's son discovering the joys of masturbation are surprisingly quite funny.

Of course, this being a Haneke film, the innate cruelty of human society is always lurking around the corner. The little village is rife with inexplicable crimes, including, most gruesomely, the torture and blinding of a young mentally handicapped boy. The mystery unfurls with Haneke's typical commanding grace, and ultimately implicates the entire society (of course), suggesting the seeds of Nazism that lurk in the younger generation will come to bloom because of the willful blindness and cruelty of the older.

Also typical of Haneke are the instances of button-pushing horror, including the aforementioned child mutilation, as well as some gratuitous incest and even a bit of nasty animal violence (the guy just can't give up on his usual cinema of shocks, I suppose, although he does show some admirable self-restraint for most of the film). Still, the black-and-white cinematography is excellent, and Haneke's command over his material is as sure as ever. Even if Haneke's conclusions are pretty much predictable from the start, the unfolding of this plot is still a thing of terrible beauty, and worth beholding.

Pirate for the Sea

Ugh. Now we're really hitting the dregs of the fest. This tedious piece of agit-prop focuses on Paul Watson, a co-founder of Greenpeace who went on to form the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an organization dedicated to defending marine life. With their own ship—named for Farley Mowat, who also appears in interviews in the film—the Sea Shepherds attempt to block the Canadian seal hunt and illegal Japanese whalers near Antarctic.

Director Ron Colby gets some suspense from these tense, often violent confrontations, but make no mistake—this is a ham-handed, dull, at times even downright dim-witted documentary. The film takes a fair cause—outside of Ottawa and the Maritimes, who even supports the seal hunt anymore?—and makes it seem almost unlikeable. Watson is surely a charismatic fellow with a powerful sense of conviction, but I like some ambiguity and nuance in my documentaries (or at least a bit of originality or insight), and Colby really has little to offer viewers looking for anything other than a confirmation of their own rightness.

Instead, we get a fawning, uncritical portrait of a controversial figure who could surely provoke more interesting work than this. Pirate for the Sea is a film so unthinking that it can show the crew on the Farley Mowat being warned that if the hull is breached they could easily die, and then later capture that same crew ramming a Japanese whaling ship with a device called "the can-opener" intended to rip open the enemy ship's hull. Yet still Colby allows Watson to claim the moral high ground of having never harmed anyone in his actions, even as the man engages in activities that could result in the deaths of people on both ships. And this doesn't even touch on the disturbing fact that Watson supplied AK-47s to a ranger station on an island conservation area, supposedly for the purpose of warding off illegal fishing. I hate to be a nag, but whatcha gonna do with those Kalashnikovs, Paul? Shoot the fishing nets?

The detail flashes by so quickly you have to wonder if Colby is embarrassed to mention it, or simply doesn't give the matter a second thought. Sadly, the film isn't interested in such contradictions. Instead, Colby settles for broad gestures toward easy sentiments that reveals a failure to employ any rigorous critical attention to his subject, or, for that matter, his craft (the general blandness of the film's style suggest nothing more than a corporate recruitment video). Good intentions don't excuse bad art.

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