Magic Marker

09.06.12

Rian Johnson, Looper, 2012, 35 mm, color, 118 minutes. Older Joe (Bruce Willis).


THOUGH THE EVENT may be better known for the living luminaries it attracts, the most ubiquitous guest at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival may be a ghost. The festival’s thirty-seventh edition pays tribute to the late French maverick Chris Marker by devoting the very first screening slot to Sans Soleil (1983), the essay film–travelogue widely regarded as his signature work. The new TIFF Cinematheque section of archival screenings also includes Loin du Vietnam (1967), the omnibus project whose contributors included Marker, Agnès Varda, and Jean-Luc Godard. That film’s proud pinko legacy is also invoked in Far from Afghanistan, a similarly provocative project conceived by activist and filmmaker John Gianvito in which modern-day muckrakers like Travis Wilkerson weigh in on America’s latest war.

Marker’s sensibility—typified by his eagerness to bend and blend cinematic and literary forms, his ability to invest political provocations with a giddy spirit of play, and his abiding love of voice-over—manifests in less overt ways as well. You can even find his stamp on the festival’s opening selection. A terse science-fiction thriller about time-traveling hitmen, Rian Johnson’s Looper may boast the star-heavy cast and commercial appeal typical of so much TIFF fare, but it also reconfigures elements of Marker’s La Jetée (1962) with the same ingenuity as Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys (1995), a touchstone that Johnson acknowledges by casting Bruce Willis in his movie too.

Of course, Marker’s influence may be more readily apparent in the selections in Wavelengths, the festival’s bustling section devoted to avant-garde and experimental works. Wavelengths has incorporated the former Visions sidebar, and now features a more substantial array of feature-length films, several of which owe more than a little to Sans Soleil. The Last Time I Saw Macau, a captivating curiosity codirected by João Pedro Rodrigues and his longtime partner and collaborator João Rui Guerra Da Mata, situates fixed-camera images of the Portuguese colony–turned–Asian gambling mecca within the cheeky construct of a noirish tale of conspiracy and murder, complete with references to Josef von Sternberg’s Macao (1952). That nearly all of this ominous chicanery is only heard in Da Mata’s pseudogumshoe narration is a touch that Marker would have appreciated. (The preponderance of mysterious felines would have been the icing on the cake.)

Making its North American premiere after a rapturous reception at Berlin earlier this year, Tabu is similarly cunning in its use of voice-over. A superb third feature by Rodrigues’s fellow Portuguese auteur Miguel Gomes, it too has a playful relationship with an earlier screen classic—in this case, F. W. Murnau’s Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931). Knitting together a series of narratives set in modern Lisbon and 1960s Africa, Gomes creates a potent and surprisingly poignant rumination on the power of storytelling and the legacy of colonialism.

Another provocative exploration of a previously hidden history is Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige’s The Lebanese Rocket Society. The film recounts the true story of rocketry experiments by students at an Armenian university in early-’60s Beirut, and how their idealistic efforts were eventually co-opted by military officials before being halted altogether. Here, the narration proves to be somewhat overbearing (as does the musical score), so it’s a tonic to experience the austerity and rigor of a new film by another Wavelengths regular, Heinz Emigholz. The latest in the German filmmaker’s ongoing “Autobiography as Architecture” subseries—which already yielded an unlikely crowd-pleaser in the form of Schindler’s Houses (2008)—Perret in France and Algeria presents a set of often stunning views of buildings by French architect Auguste Perret. Emigholz’s film gives starring roles to the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, Perret’s postwar buildings in Le Havre, and other structures that display his mastery of concrete and his magpielike enthusiasm for a massive range of styles and forms.

Wavelengths hardly suffers from lack of diversity. Other highlights among the feature-length works include Bestiare, Denis Côté’s alternately grim and sardonic commentary on the ways that our species regard (or disregard) our animal brethren. And differently, Molussia is a mesmerizing, randomly arranged nine-part film comprising narrated excerpts of Günther Anders’s anti-fascist satire The Molussian Catacomb (1931) and grainy vistas and landscapes that are further distressed by French cine-alchemist Nicholas Rey. New short works by Ben Rivers, Nathaniel Dorsky, Athina Rachel Tsangari, and Tsai Ming-liang offer further rewards, as does a set of heretofore little-known videos by Francesca Woodman. Seen whitewashing her body and juxtaposing her own nude form with examples of classical statuary in brief, cryptic vignettes filmed a few years before her death in 1981 at age twenty-two, the much-mythologized photographer is another of the festival’s apparitions.

Jason Anderson

The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 6–16.