Friday, September 07, 2007

An American in Toronto: Day 1 (A Sense of History)

Steve reporting from the Toronto Inernational Film Festival

I've only been walking around for roughly a day and a half and already I have a blister the size of a dime on the sole of my right foot. I may make friends with the subway sooner than I had expected. One friend with whom I've already crafted a concrete bond (not blonde) is a certain Mr. Horton, Tim Horton. Good coffee, cheap pastries and they're freakin' everywhere. Given my need to wake up early to hit the same-day line on most days and my ruinous affection for the kinds of films that are playing in the Midnight Madness slots, I will probably end up drinking more coffee in the next week-plus than I do in an average month, and I generally like myself some coffee anyway.

I can see what's coming down the pike and yesterday wasn't even a rough day. Films didn't start showing until 5:00 PM, so I had time to relax, get a couple things done and catch up on the rest I didn't get Wednesday evening. If I'm a nervous wreck by the end of this, we can't say I didn't expect it. (The nerves are all part of the fun, no?)

This entire festival experience, in fact, is basically all about knowing where you're going and where you've been. So it seems appropriate that my TIFF would kick off with three films that, in various ways, relate to exactly that -- placement within the stream of time.

The most obvious adherent to this is the animated feature Persepolis, which traces the fortunes of a young woman as she grows up alternately in the midst of and miles away from the political upheaval that befell Iran from the Iranian Revolution onward. It arrives on a cloud of positive buzz, coupled with enormous feelings of goodwill befitting its status as an adaptation of a much-loved autobiographical graphic novel; the Cannes dust that got sprinkled upon it after its Jury Prize win certainly boosts its profile as well. And it's still not very good. The animation is certainly attractive and winning, but the script has serious tonal issues. It vacillates from cutting comedy (often very funny) to earnest drama (generally embarassing) and back again so often that somewhere there's a South Korean director going green with envy. More fatally, though, is the lack of immediacy -- by film's end it feels like the story of somebody who saw all this bad stuff happening to other people without it ever really reaching them. And then there's the "Eye of the Tiger" scene, which is plum awful no matter how you look at it. Persepolis is history told from a limited, solipsistic perspective, and all the snazzy design and snarky humor in the world can't salvage that.

Much more interesting is Carlos Saura's approach in his latest music-centered documentary Fados. Saura, never one to go for the talking-head summation style of documentary, correctly presumes that the most interesting way to educate about the Portugese musical style fado is simply to let the music tell its own story. The film, then, is simply one performance after another, with songs augmented and countered by dance routines, careful staging and striking use of color and deliberate artifice. Through listening to the songs and paying attention to the various stagings, I got a strong sense of the importance of fado in the formation of Portugese national identity, how that gets expressed through the music and how the rhythms hard-wired into the country's cultural DNA remains relevant to this day. (On the last point: The most incongruous scene is also one of the film's finest -- an intense, groove-heavy hip-hop performance that features a sampled fado classic as its backbone.) It could be leveled that Fados is merely an extended series of music videos, but it often takes a sure hand like Saura to remind us that such a classification need not be an automatic stigma.

And then there's Dario Argento. Cultural history doesn't really factor into much of his filmography, but he does have an immense personal history to his credit, one that he's spent the last twenty years tarnishing with one subpar horror flick after another. What he apparently needed was a return to the field of his greatest triumphs, the one-two punch of 1977's Suspiria and 1980's Inferno. These two formed the majority of a rumored trilogy collectively called "The Three Mothers Trilogy," and the finale was said to have been in various stages of development for years without ever reaching fruition. After watching a couple giallo projects fall apart, Dario decided it was time to knuckle down and actually deliver the capper to his trilogy. Months of anticipation later, The Mother of Tears slithered its way onto the Midnight Madness schedule, and it's the first Argento since 1988's Opera that I can point to and say, "Yes! This works!" The script is as stupid as ever, but then people don't go to Argento for coherent plots; rather, they go for the man's facility with images and his breathtaking displays of violence. The Mother of Tears is a letdown only in the sense that it isn't really spiritual kin to its predecessors -- the poetic anti-logic that makes Suspiria feel like a fairy tale and Inferno like a nightmare ported straight from its creator's fevered brain is nowhere to be found here. What Argento has brought in the stead of dreaminess is the nastiest, cruelest edge he's ever brought to a film. Borrowing more than a dash of his buddy George Romero's underappreciated The Crazies, he's crafted an unabashedly cheesy, hyperbolically vicious portrait of the end of days. The gore level in this film is off the meter -- every single kill scene seems to be consciously trying to top the famed opening of Suspiria for squirm-inducing nastiness, what with its multiple murdered babies and its heads smashed/hacked into pulp and its spear shoved into a woman's naughty bits -- and if the story doesn't really hang together, it still exudes a palpable sense of disease and chaos. And if the acting isn't so hot, it's still a blast to see Asia Argento and Daria Nicolodi working with Dario again. There's also the single best jump scare since 2003's otherwise-negligible The Forgotten. I'm pretty sure that watching this rots your soul, and I'm all right with that.

Lastly: Seeing The Mother of Tears at Midnight Madness might just be my favorite moviegoing experience ever. It wasn't just that the crowd was perfectly responsive; there's also the fact that the whole auditorium got to sing "Happy Birthday" to Dario. He later gave the single best answer I've ever heard at a Q&A -- in response to what it was like to work with the monkey that serves at the witch familiar, he launched into a surreal and hilarious exegesis of why monkeys are bite-happy anarchists. It was so awesome. I can only hope that the rest of my TIFF is even half that entertaining.

4 comments:

smugguy said...

I'm excited to see this positive review of 'The Third Mother', especially one that seems to actually acknowledge and admire Argento's earlier films. 'Suspiria' and 'Inferno' are superb art films in their own right, not just gross out horror. I cannot wait to see it, and it sounds like it lives up to expectations/expected disappointments. Looking forward to opinions on 'Eastern Promises', 'Lust Caution' and 'I'm Not There' as well!

JA said...

Steve. I... can't. I can't say how jealous that whole thing has made me. Argento... birthday... monkeys. Awesomeness.

Ali said...

Yeah, Tim Hortons has carved quite the niche over here. I find that people are usually divided into two camps, TH or Starbucks. I happen to like both, but apparently this is unacceptable. The latter wins for now because it has soy milk.

Sad to hear that Persepolis didn't live up to expectations. If I could re-do my "Most Anticipated" list, it would definitely feature in the top five. If it at least looks good...

NATHANIEL R said...

It's TH for me over Starbucks. Unfortunately Starbucks seems to have the NYC market monopolized.

the Q & A for MOTHER OF TEARS sounds like a blast but the movie... yeeesh. But then again, I tend to avoid midnight madness on account of my low tolerance for gore.