Klaus Lutz, Titan, 2008, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 9 minutes.
READING TORONTO’S major newspaper coverage of the city’s international film festival, which closed this past weekend, one might believe that the sprawling cinematic behemoth was largely devoted to starry red-carpet walks by the likes of Michael Moore, who chose to world-premiere Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) there, and Oprah Winfrey, blitzing through town to promote Precious (2009), which took the festival’s People’s Choice Award. Even the controversy around the festival’s “City to City” showcase of films from Tel Aviv—strategically coinciding with the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s “Brand Israel” PR campaign—garnered much of its ink in terms of the celebrity boycott. Among the thousand-plus signatories of a collective letter of protest was Jane Fonda, who recanted her stance halfway through the festival. Industry publications, meanwhile, focused on the state of acquisitions at the event, universally deemed dismal.
Easy to miss beneath these several layers of hubbub is the fact that TIFF—unlike Cannes—also sustains a less flashy but undeniably healthy subculture devoted to experimental cinema. Its six-show Wavelengths sidebar feels like its own festival-within-a-festival, consistently packing the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall with disciples of formally rigorous fare: Wavelengths-goers this year included programmers from simpatico events—like Toronto’s Images Festival; Windsor, Ontario’s Media City; and Sundance’s own experimental New Frontier section—and curators from MoMA and the Pacific Film Archive, in addition to numerous like-minded filmmakers. Though the series is multiformat, 16 mm is its ruling gauge, with most entries functioning well within the neo-structural-materialist aesthetic that currently seems to define so much of the celluloid-centric avant-garde: In addition to new work by heavyweights like Harun Farocki and Jean-Marie Straub, standouts by lesser-knowns included Karl Kels’s 35-mm rhinoceros strobe Käfig (Cage, 2009), Coleen Fitzgibbon’s restored optical-printing palindrome FM/TRCS (1974), and Klaus Lutz’s Titan (2008), a marvelously designed silent triple-superimposition seemingly time-warped from the age of Tzara and Huelsenbeck. (Sadly Titan’s maker, a New York–based Swiss expat artist, died only days before the film’s premiere.)
Less cohesive was TIFF’s Future Projections slate, an uneven selection, scattered throughout the city, of moving-image work from the art world. Though there were some successes—notably Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s mysteriously quasi-allegorical Phantoms of Nabua, keenly black-boxed at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, and Candice Breitz’s artist talk previewing her new multichannel work Factum, which premiered at her solo exhibition at the Power Plant later in the week—elsewhere, there were oversights in execution. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s video from his installation Picture Start, an already-dubious best-of reel from his work with various international directors, looped in a curtained corner of INDEXG gallery off of a defective DVD, its image streaked with horizontal distortions. To draw attention to Bell Lightbox, planned as future TIFF hub, artists’ videos were screened nightly on the construction site with weak and ill-placed projectors that rendered the minute details of Marco Brambilla’s intricate Civilization, for instance, all but impossible to discern.
Trailer for Harmony Korine, Trash Humpers, 2009.
The lack of care given to Future Projections was all the more striking given the impressive technical capabilities of the movie theaters proper. Viewers could savor the incongruous experience of seeing the world premiere of Harmony Korine’s brilliantly retarded shot-on-VHS gutter-crawl Trash Humpers thrown onto the monumental screen of what must be one of North America’s most massive multiplexes. Bereft of any clear story or characters, Humpers serves up nearly an hour and a half of a gang of delinquents in latex old-person masks smashing fluorescent bulbs, axing cathode-ray television sets, and, yes, humping trash. Choose your own precedent for this breathlessly barely-there document: Paul McCarthy’s performance tapes, John Waters’s Mondo Trasho (1969), Shuji Terayama’s postapocalyptic Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1971), or Jackass’s “too-hot-for-TV” bootlegs. Indeed, the embrace of such a severely stripped-down aesthetic might well have merited Humpers a slot in Wavelengths or Future Projections—had Korine himself not provided the proper level of celebrity to keep his film just on the radar.
STEVEN SODERBERGH’S THE INFORMANT! has a golden glow, as if it had been dipped in high-fructose corn syrup. The look of the movie, as well as other exaggeratedly cheery, cornball touches, most notably Marvin Hamlisch’s jaunty Broadway orchestrated score, are Soderbergh’s cinematic translations of a very creepy description that occurs on the opening page of Kurt Eichenwald’s investigative nonfiction book of almost the same name (no exclamation point in the title of the original 2000 edition) about the 1990s multinational price-fixing scandal involving agri-industry giant Archer Daniels Midland. Of Decatur, Illinois, where ADM’s headquarters and many of its processing plants were (and still are) located, Eichenwald writes: “Newcomers to town usually found the smell disagreeable. But for Decatur residents, the ever-present odor produced by drying corn feed and toasting soymeal at the powerful Archer Daniels Midland Company had become part of the landscape, no different than the trees or the sky. Locals often joked it was the smell of money being made.”
Based on his own New York Times investigative series, Eichenwald’s The Informant is a great read. While not as epic as Enron, the ADM corruption case resulted in jail time for three of its executives. The government also collected more than one billion dollars in fines from various companies around the world implicated in the price-fixing scheme. The combination of outrageous corporate chicanery with the production of foodstuffs whose supposed wholesomeness defines the American way—and, as many now believe, the way to obesity and the abuses of factory farming—makes for some laugh-out-loud moments in a fast-moving though complicated business thriller. But what gives the book its truth-is-more-preposterous-than-fiction twist is its central character, Mark Whitacre, the most highly placed whistle-blower in US history. Whitacre was a rising star at ADM when he alerted the FBI to the conspiracy. He wore a wire for two and a half years, all the while engaging in kickback schemes perhaps more profitable than those he accused his bosses of perpetrating. The dream witness turned into a nightmare for the FBI—and a mind-boggling example of self-interest rationalized as utopian vision.
“Comedy is hard; dying is easy” is a showbiz axiom. But when all the elements of a comedy are in sync and the director imposes a lean and mean discipline, the result has the élan of spur-of-the-moment inspiration. The Informant! is an inspired social satire, a near-perfect single-carat diamond in an age of mindless movie bling. It’s a small movie, but not in any sense minor. Soderbergh’s choice is to focus on Whitacre (Matt Damon) and keep the ADM company as fast-sketch background. Thus you might not grasp, after watching the adaptation that Soderbergh cooked up with screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, that ADM, because of the generous contributions of its leader Dwayne Andreas to both Republican and Democratic administrations, was a very well-connected company, nor might you even consider the degree to which that sense of being connected led the price-fixers to feel invulnerable. The one thing that is salient is that Whitacre, in order to protect himself, told a big whopper, which caused one of his bosses to call in the FBI to investigate a supposed Japanese mole inside ADM’s valuable lysine-development division, which caused Whitacre, whose baby was lysine production, to blow the whistle on the price-fixing scheme in which he was a key operative, in order to keep the feds from finding out about his other swindles. The underlying paradox of the ADM case is that if Whitacre hadn’t been a crook and a pathological liar, he never would have informed, and the price-fixing might have gone on to this day.
Damon plays Whitacre as a satiric version of the profoundly disassociated personality that is nearly his stock-in-trade: Tom Ripley in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Colin Sullivan in The Departed (2006), Jason Bourne in the “Bourne” series (2002–2007). Burns, who also cowrote The Bourne Ultimatum, hangs the narrative on Whitacre’s stream-of-conscious voice-over, making the character among the most unreliable narrators in movie history. Like many such characters, he suffers from paranoid delusions of grandeur, severe boundary issues, and an inability to acknowledge the existence of others except insofar as they are instrumental to his own needs. Beneath his unflagging Eagle Scout demeanor; short-legged, determined gait; earnest, bespectacled gaze; and a Robert Redford mop of hair that turns out to be, who would think it, a toupee, is a psyche that free-associates with abandon, so that he can avoid even a semblance of self-awareness or moral responsibility. Poisonous butterflies, girls’ underwear sold in kiosks on Tokyo streets, how to smuggle ties bought in Paris through customs, aspirations to 007’s daring-do—or to Tom Cruise’s arm-twisting in The Firm (1993)—they pour out of him onto the audio track accompanied by music that sounds like the omnipresent TV-commercial jingle you fear will still be playing in your head when you’re on your deathbed. It’s a brilliant performance and a true star turn, but it would not have been possible without Burns’s biting, hilarious text and the utterly mundane mise-en-scène that Soderbergh provides in order to set off Whitacre’s flamboyant pathology, as well as to suggest that the frauds Whitacre perpetrated are hardly unfamiliar. The ADM case was wrapped up by 1999, but the corporate arrogance, greed, and mendacity it revealed is everyday news. As one of The Informant!’s numerous characters opines: “Everyone in this country is a victim of corporate crime by the time they finish breakfast.”
Apichatpong Weerasethakul, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, 2009, color film, 18 minutes.
WITH ITS ROSTER of selections from sixty-four countries, the Toronto International Film Festival continues to make good on the second word in its title. But among the seventeen programs that constitute TIFF—the fest’s name of choice judging by its current rebranding efforts—it is the Wavelengths series that places the greatest emphasis on the specifics of place.
Filmmakers represented at Wavelengths tend to share a regard for landscapes, whether the spaces and sites they investigate are real, fabricated, or some combination of the two. No wonder such geographically inclined works as James Benning’s RR (2007), John Gianvito’s Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind (2007), and Heinz Emigholz’s Schindler’s Houses (2006) have all received pride of place in recent editions of TIFF’s nine-year-old survey of avant-garde film and video.
Emigholz is one of many veterans with new works in the series—Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Marie Straub, Jim Jennings, and Ernie Gehr get nods, too. Even Michael Snow—the seventy-nine-year-old local legend to whom Wavelengths is dedicated—is back with Puccini Conservato (2008), a freewheeling ten-minute piece that essentially casts a Panasonic home stereo as the lead in an impromptu production of La Boheme. Yet it may be some relative newcomers (and one well-seasoned provocateur) who make the strongest impression by encouraging viewers not only to look deeply into the places in front of the camera but also to be wary of what they find there.
Recently feted with the first English-language study of his works (by TIFF Cinematheque senior programmer and Artforum contributor James Quandt), Apichatpong Weerasethakul returns to the fest with two superb new shorts, both of them segments of the Thai filmmaker’s multiplatform project Primitive. A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (2009) offers a typically idiosyncratic and thoroughly mesmerizing tour of Nabua, a Thai village whose sleepy beauty belies a violent history. Images of a shadowy figure emerging from the forest and what could be a spaceship readying for takeoff give evidence of Weerasethakul’s ability to astonish, a capacity perhaps unmatched by any other contemporary filmmaker. Phantoms of Nabua (2009), presented as an installation work at MoCCA in TIFF’s Future Projections sidebar, shows nighttime views of nearby terrain with lightning strikes, a video projector, and an oft-kicked ball of flame serving as sources of illumination.
Another very bright highlight at Wavelengths is the world premiere of Let Each One Go Where He May (2009), the debut feature-length work by Chicago-based film artist Ben Russell. One of several recent pieces drawn from Russell’s excursions to Suriname, the film consists of thirteen ten-minute-long shots that depict the toils and travels of two taciturn brothers. As in Weerasethakul’s new shorts, the often bucolic quality of the environment conceals a troubled past—as the brothers journey through chaotic city streets, serene waterways, and an illegal gold mine, they retrace the routes of ancestors who escaped Dutch slave masters three centuries before. The climactic segments reveal that this is anything but a straightforward exercise in ethnography; things are a lot slyer (and less authentic) than Russell or his subjects let on.
Two shorter works go headlong into other landscapes: A 16-mm film by Toronto’s Chris Kennedy, Tamalpais (2009) makes fractals of a series of Bay Area vistas in ingenious fashion, while Hiroatsu Suzuki and Rossana Torres’s Cordao Verde (2009) is a thoughtful and beautifully composed portrait of green-belt life in rural Portugal.
But it’s another old master that poses the most provocative questions about the places around us. Harun Farocki returns with In Comparison (2009), an hour-long 16-mm work that expands on themes explored in the German filmmaker and artist’s 2007 installation Comparison Via a Third. Presenting footage shot at brickworks and building sites in Africa, India, and Europe, Farocki gradually adds layer upon layer of meaning, subtly transforming what could have been a Discovery Channel doc on brickmaking into a stringent essay film on labor, industrialization, and the hidden mechanics of cinematic montage. It’s a lesson that Farocki has taught us repeatedly during his forty-three-year career, but it pays to think carefully about what we see.
Wavelengths runs at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall as part of the Toronto International Film Festival September 10–19. For more details, click here.
UNJUSTLY NEGLECTED, Jacques Demy’s Model Shop—the director’s first and only film set in the US—is finally available on DVD forty years after its initial release. One of cinema’s most unabashed dreamers and romantics, Demy was offered a contract by Columbia Pictures in 1967 to make films in America, thanks to the critical and popular success of his third feature, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), the all-sung melancholy musical that launched Catherine Deneuve’s career.
“I’m trying to create a world in my films,” Demy, who would transform the port town of Rochefort into a pastel-hued mini-universe in The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), once said. But in Model Shop (which Demy also cowrote and produced), set in Los Angeles and filmed in 1968, the awestruck director is content to capture, rather than manipulate, the majesty of his new city. The film follows twenty-four hours in the life of George (Gary Lockwood, star of 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, though Demy originally wanted then-little-known Harrison Ford), an unemployed architect trying to scrape up one hundred dollars so his green MG won’t be repossessed. Model Shop is just as besotted with the City of Angels as its protagonist is. Driving up to the Hollywood Hills, George takes in a spectacular view of Los Angeles, later remarking to a friend, “I was really moved by the geometry of the city, its baroque harmony. It’s a fabulous city. It’s pure poetry.”
During that memorable drive, George is in pursuit of an enigmatic Frenchwoman, Lola (Anouk Aimée), whom he will follow to her titular place of employment, where men pay to photograph women in various intimate settings and poses. As becomes clear when Lola and George go back to her apartment, Model Shop is also an oblique sequel to Demy’s first feature, 1961’s Lola, which starred Aimée as a nightclub singer in Nantes waiting for the father of her child to return. While Lola recounts to George, who’s just been called up for the draft, the last seven years of her life (working in a sly reference to Demy’s 1963 film, Bay of Angels), the theme of Model Shop becomes clear: the restorative, if tentative, power of love. “You make me believe anything is possible,” the once-malcontent George says to Lola the morning after. Even though the specter of the Vietnam War looms in several scenes (whether as car-radio broadcast, in conversation, or George’s confession that he’s afraid of death), Demy still finds reason for hope, no matter how fragile. Or, as the film’s tagline put it: “Maybe tomorrow. Maybe never. Maybe.”
Jacques Demy’s Model Shop is available on DVD beginning September 8.
Carol Reed, Odd Man Out, 1947, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 115 minutes. Left: Johnny McQueen (James Mason). Right: Johnny McQueen (James Mason) and Kathleen Sullivan (Kathleen Ryan).
PERHAPS BECAUSE IT GOES AGAINST genre expectations, Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out (1947), which crowns Film Forum’s Brit-noir season, is less often revived than Reed’s The Third Man (1949). Lacking the menace and harshness of most postwar British crime thrillers, the earlier film drifts along on a wave of fatalism and quasi-religious symbolism.
IRA leader Johnny McQueen (James Mason) accidentally kills a man in unnamed Belfast and is himself shot when he and his men bungle a robbery; the gang botches its getaway, too, and Johnny is stranded on the street. He lurches around the city for the next twelve hours, a doomed soul trapped in a noir labyrinth expressionistically lit by Robert Krasker.
Johnny is a passive hero whose role is to reveal the selfishness, venality, or kindness of others. He is helped by two Englishwomen practicing their nursing skills. A Dickensian collector of caged birds (F. J. McCormick) plots to sell him. A publican hustles to get him out of the way. An artist (Robert Newton) desperately tries to paint his dying moments. Then there is the unsmiling young woman (Kathleen Ryan) who loves Johnny, and the gentle Father Tom (W. G. Fay) who reasons with her. Fay and McCormick, magnificent here, were players with the Abbey Theatre; neither lived out the year.
Among the most evocative images are those of Johnny lying in a bathtub in a scrapyard as the snow falls and trains thunder past. What’s going through his head in these moments is hard to say. Since he had vision problems during the heist, it’s clear something is disturbed. Even his moments of clarity may be experienced surrealistically, as when he sees in the beer bubbles on a pub table the faces of those he’s encountered in the film. Hallucinating in the artist’s studio, he sees portraits form into a congregation with Father Tom, his boyhood priest. Johnny rises, and the extreme low angle endows him with power for the only time on his journey as he quotes Corinthians 13:2: “Though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.”
Making an IRA leader sympathetic must have been risky in Britain in 1947. Mason did it by making Johnny a soft-spoken pacifist in the scene in which he plans the robbery, and through his Christlike stoicism. He martyrs himself for man, not for “the Organization,” though some brave programmer should one day pair Odd Man Out with Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008) for both their differences and their affinities.
Odd Man Out plays September 4–17 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.
WHEN CONCLUDING the first of his “Movie Nights” at the IFC Center in New York, Jem Cohen foreshadowed the next event, a screening of the haunting performance document–cum–historical essay Empires of Tin (2008): “It’s not an easy ride, but some of them can’t be.” The statement elicited chuckles from the audience, not only for its self-deprecating candor but also for its apparent irony—no Cohen work is an easy ride.
The Brooklyn-based filmmaker’s meandering camera is not bound by traditional paths; rather, it is set in motion by rumbling trains, buses, and Cohen’s wanderings on foot in New York and abroad. Training his lens on the underpinnings of a place—its buildings, roads, and waterways—Cohen registers the majestic, fleeting music of its daily life: a Chinatown shopkeeper tending his stall, the floating detritus of a spirited parade. He assembles most of his films from an ongoing archive of window recordings and street footage, a practice that, post-9/11, has prompted his role as community advocate. He rallied, for instance, against mayoral initiatives in 2007 to restrict street photography and continues to pass out flyers today asserting the rights of New York City’s filmmakers and photographers.
For his third and final night at IFC, Cohen will screen a program of “Shorts, Rarities, & Things to Come.” This cinematic treasure trove, brimming with portraits of cities, people, songs, and ideas, will include the especially radiant One Bright Day (2009). Structured around a children’s nonsense rhyme of the same name, the film focuses on the rants of a homeless veteran who rises like Lazarus from the nocturnal streets to achieve occasional, startling coherence through his slurred words. Shot in 2006, three years into the Iraq war, in front of the antiterrorism barriers at Manhattan’s Penn Station, the short offers seventeen minutes of disquieting contradictions. As a representation of raw emotion and the futility of violence, it epitomizes Cohen’s uncanny ability to transform abstract notions into poetic meditations.