Steve reporting from the Toronto International Film Festival
I'm rapidly acclimating myself to the logistics of planning out a festival day. It's something I've had a bit of practice at prior, thanks to the thriving film scene in New York City, but it's a far different experience trying to map ten days of moviegoing as opposed to one. Add to this the blessing and curse of buzz -- I've decided to burn one already-purchased ticket, for Lee Myung-se's M, due to awful word-of-mouth -- and maintaining a schedule can start to resemble an experiment in controlled chaos. So there's something beautiful about the meticulous arrangement necessary for the six-film day.
The problem with volume, of course, is the increased possibility for duds. Starting off the day with Eric Rohmer's The Romance of Astrea and Celadon meant that I was indeed beginning a very long day on the wrong note. The film centers around the titular young lovers, divided by a misinterpreted encounter Celadon has with another woman, and their various misadventures as they do everything in their power not to get back together. Astrea (Stéphanie de Crayencour) gets the ball rolling with her willful misreading of a kiss obviously forced upon Celadon (Andy Gillet) by an overeager would-be paramour; her bullheadedness and command that Celadon is never allowed to lay eyes upon her again leads the broken-hearted boy to attempt suicide via drowning in the river, which instead sweeps him away from his village and leaves him very much alive. Though he is waylaid at first by a strong-willed nymph, he eventually gets himself free. Instead of wandering back to the village and freeing Astrea from her grief by saying, "Hey, I'm not dead!" he camps out in the woods and sulks. Even after being told that Astrea has figured out her lapse in judgment and does nothing but weep all day for her presumed-dead beloved, he still won't do anything because she hasn't told him that it's okay to hang around her anymore, thus ignoring the defeatist logic at the heart of that argument in order to justify his own misery. This, to me, isn't love -- it's childish nonsense edging up on emotional cruelty, and all the goodwill built up over the length of Rohmer's career can't make me care about these immature twits or keep the film from coming off like a 7th-century answer to films like Serendipity. I understand the influences and historical traditions that Rohmer is utilizing here, especially in regards to the berserk last act and the theatrical history of drag, but that doesn't mean they work. From where I stand, Astrea and Celadon is an unfortunate whiff from one of the grand masters of cinema; some very intelligent people, including Paul Clark (of Silly Hats Only and Screengrab) and Ryan Wu (of Pigs and Battleships) think otherwise, though, so the curious might want to give it a look anyway.
The curious, along with everyone else, should also want to keep an eye out for Amir Bar-Lev's extraordinary documentary My Kid Could Paint That, about the media hype that surrounded 4-year-old Marla Olmstead and her unusually accomplished abstract paintings. It starts as a winning look at the value and meaning of art in a world where representation is no longer a necessary painting component (if a toddler can really do it, is it valid?); unexpectedly, the thrust of the film shifts dramatically when the Olmstead family becomes the target of a "60 Minutes" story that accuses Marla's parents, Laura and Mark, of not being on the up-and-up, in essence fleecing people out of their money in the process. As Bar-Lev stumbles along with the Olmsteads into the media maelstrom, his film turns into a depiction of the cannibalistic nature of media as well as an autocritique of Bar-Lev's own contributions to this cycle when he realizes that he no longer knows whether Laura and Mark are indeed being truthful about their daughter's talent. Some thorny questions about representation and notions of truth got raised when the situation changed, and to his everlasting credit Bar-Lev was ready to handle them. My Kid Could Paint That starts off engaging and ends deeply disturbing. It's one of the year's best films.
Already knighted as one of the year's potential best back in April when it won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days manages to surprise simply by living up to the expectations before it. Cristian Mungiu's debut drama is a potent naturalistic drama centering on a woman (played gracefully by Anamaria Marinca) who, over the course of the film, helps a friend set up, go through and recover from an illegal abortion. Mungui manages to entirely avoid melodrama and does a smashing job of grounding his plot in the grim economic & political realities of Romania circa 1987 -- what we are shown here is a decrepit society with little room for kindnesses that don't have riders attached. Much of this is contained in Vlad Ivanov, as the only abortionist the girls could afford; he gives an amazing performance as he manages to project both vague concern for his patient's well-being and a ruthlessly slimy desire to get what he wants and how he wants it -- he's a sadist who means well. The plot promises a political hand-grenade, but 4 Months... is neither truly for or against legalized abortion -- it is simply about an abortion and the people involved in it. It's a fantastic film and a striking debut for Mungiu.
However, even if 4 Months... is unusually bare-bones and observational, it still has nothing on John Gianvito's Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind. Gianvito's terrific avant-garde feature, playing as part of the Wavelengths program Winds of Change?, is simple as anything in its design. Gianvito alternates shots of landmarks and gravesites around America with shots of trees, tall grass, flowers and the wind blowing through them. For much of its running time, it's a remarkable, serene piece of work, yet the quiet isn't without purpose -- the featured graves and memorial plaques commemorate historical figures who've either died in pursuit of various civil rights or devoted their lives to such rights. The cumulative effect is overwhelming, really -- it's a guided history of American dissent, with plenty of time to reflect on the violence and blood that had to be shed for us to be where we are today. What pushes the film over the top, though, is the sudden eruption of percussive music and roving camera when Gianvito gets to the present day. He shows us various demonstrations and protests from the last couple of years so as to remind us that we cannot rest on our laurels. There is still work to be done.
I don't mean to give short shrift to the two shorts that precede the Gianvito film in the program. The first of them, Europa 2005, 27 Octobre deserves special mention simply for historical reasons: It's the final collaboration between avant-garde mainstays Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet (the latter passed away last year). It's also the first film I've seen from the couple, and it's a fine piece of work, a somber video piece centered around the location where two young men being chased by the French police leapt over a fence and into an electric generator, killing themselves and sparking the banlieue riots. The effectiveness of the piece is in large part due to the slight differences in light and sound for each pan across the neighborhood (the fourth in particular is disorienting simply because a barking dog, omnipresent in the other segments, cannot be heard), and the deliberateness leaves plenty of thinking room. There's also the Ken Jacobs short Capitalism: Slavery, which is as violently eye-filling as the Straub/Huillet is placid. Yet the fact remains that Profit Motive is the main attraction here, and Gianvito fills the bill with aplomb.
Alas, the odds eventually had to even themselves out again, which they did in a big steaming way with Christian Frosch's stultifying dystopia tale Silent Resident. It starts out following the fortunes of futuristic complaint handler Hannah (Brigitte Hobmeier) and her attempts to leave her abusive husband, a desire that becomes significantly easier when he vanishes. It's not long, though, before Frosch tries shifting the narrative around and getting tricky with his chronology, presumably to keep us in the audience in the disoriented state of its protagonist. All the smoke and mirrors proves to me, though, is that Frosch never bothered to figure out what his film was about -- imagine a film whose story is constructed almost entirely of loose ends and you're halfway there. By the time Frosch starts frantically trying to wrap things up, Silent Resident has collapses into a godawful exercise in set design with a whole heap of nonsense drizzled on top. This is easily the most useless attempt at a sci-fi head trip I've seen since Abel Ferrara's horrid New Rose Hotel; the only way it could have been worse is if Frosch had filmed himself punching my mom and worked it into the film.
And lastly, I saw George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead, the horror master's latest excursion into the seminal zombie genre he defined with Night of the Living Dead. This new entry concerns... no, wait. I'm sorry, what am I saying? Diary of the Dead was never made. It died in development much like Diamond Dead and Romero's take on Stephen King's The Stand. I most certainly did not see anything with that title appended to it. And I definitely didn't see a schticky, clumsily self-aware film that takes everything brilliant and compelling about Romero's series and craps right into its heart, thus devastating me with maybe the biggest disappointment I've borne witness to this decade. No sirree. Never happened. Romero would never do that to li'l ol' me.