By coincidence, the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival began and ended for me with strikingly similar images. The first film I saw, Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain, opens with a minutes-long shot through a wall of ceiling-to-floor windows. The camera is positioned within Panahi’s seaside home and is focused on a point in the middle distance, where we see a man climb out of an SUV, lift a heavy bag, and then, with some amount of effort, make his way toward the villa. The man (Kambuzia Partovi) eventually enters the room and proceeds to cover the wide panes of glass with dark curtains. After doing the same to every other window in the three-story home, he opens his bag to reveal a dog he’s smuggled away from the city. In the film’s signature image, dog and master then sit together on a long, low table in silent contemplation of the black curtains.
Eight days and 40 films later, I wrapped the festival with a late-night screening of Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs, a beautiful and harrowing chimera of a film. It ends with a twenty-minute sequence built from only two shots and featuring two characters (Lee Kang-sheng and Chen Shiang-chyi), who stand motionless amidst the rubble of an abandoned concrete building. The first image is a low-angle, medium shot of their faces; the second is a reverse shot from a high-angle perspective several meters behind them. In the first, we see them staring without expression at some point beyond the camera; in the second, we see the focus of their attention: a painted mural of a barren field with mountains in the distance.
That Panahi’s curtains and Tsai’s mural mimic the two dimensions and wide aspect ratio of a cinema screen is, presumably, no coincidence at all. As was the case with This is Not a Film (2011), Panahi was forced to make Closed Curtain within the tight constraints of his house arrest in Iran. After premiering Stray Dogs at the Venice Film Festival, Tsai announced the film would likely be his last. Both men are in their mid-50s and have been making films for more than two decades, both have been forced to work under increasing restrictions (political, financial, or otherwise), and both have made the transition from film to digital video. They should, perhaps, be forgiven if their latest work is preoccupied by the idea of cinema.
And at a festival where only one of the 288 programmed features was projected on film, Panahi and Tsai were hardly alone. The analogue holdout, Mark Peranson and Raya Martin’s La última película, was screened for press and industry on the first morning of the fest, where it was greeted positively, for the most part, and with a mixture of nostalgia and resignation. The print, which as far as I know had never been shown to an audience, looked beautiful, and if I was disappointed at all by the technical experience of the screening, it’s owing to the projection booths at TIFF’s Bell Lightbox, which are sealed so effectively I wasn’t able to hear even a hint of the turning reels (my own particular cinephile fetish).
The digital tide has turned quickly in recent years, and with tremendous force, but its final triumph – at this festival, at least – came with a proverbial whimper. In a telling anecdote, Daniel Kasman, in his interview with Frederick Wiseman for The Notebook, asked the 83 year-old director if he felt there was a profound difference between shooting on film, as he’d done for more than four decades, versus video. When Wiseman dismissed the idea (“there’s an enormous amount of garbage about that”), Kasman responded, “I’m sure there is but the reason I ask, I just feel as a film goer coming into this age that people are taking digital for granted for the most part, that the question should be asked before people forget to ask” (my italics). A related anecdote: the night before the public premiere of La última película, Peranson told me he was concocting a scheme to burn up part of one reel within the projector so that the audience would see celluloid melt. It didn’t happen, but as a farewell gesture to the century-old medium at the heart of TIFF, a funeral pyre would have been a spectacular way to go.
Inspired by Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie (1971) and by L.M. Kit Carson and Lawrence Schiller’s The American Dreamer (1971), La última película is a difficult film to summarise fairly. Real-life writer-director Alex Ross Perry stars as a sardonic and absurdly over-confident filmmaker who travels to Mexico with a small crew, intent on using the world’s last remaining reels of film stock to shoot an apocalyptic spectacle. They arrive in late 2012, just in time to join the throngs of tourists, true believers, and hawkers of trinkets who gathered at Mayan ruins to welcome the end of the world. There’s much drinking and improvised rambling in the style of Hopper at his most egomaniacal and paranoid, and all of it is captured on an assortment of cameras: 16mm, Super 8, hi- and standard-def DV, iPhones.
The resulting film feels handmade, like a patchwork quilt, and most of its finest moments are born of small formal gestures that call attention to the character of a particular stock or video format. I especially like a sequence in which a young woman walks through a cemetery at dusk and begins to sing “La Llarona,” a traditional folksong about a mother who is trapped between the living and the dead, doomed to wander the earth until she finds the children she murdered. As the woman turns and disappears into the darkness of a crypt, the image momentarily pops with a flash of light. Whether by happy accident or through post-production meddling, a few frames of the stock have been overexposed – a phantom image in a film overrun by ghosts. It’s a remarkable and genuinely moving sequence. Her song accompanies a montage of crucifixes, landscapes and footage of an elderly man dancing in the street. The images stutter from dropped frames, and the soundtrack has the hiss of aged analogue. Typical of the film, Peranson and Martin further complicate the moment by cutting later to a more distant perspective, shot on hi-def DV, that reveals members of the crew huddled on the floor around her, laughing about having just run out of film.
La última película reminds me of those carnivalesque postmodern novels of the ‘70s and ‘80s. It’s chaotic, idea-packed, and frequently funny, but it’s also always on the verge of collapsing into a too-simple, juvenile pastiche. As with those pomo novels, evaluating a film like La última película is a challenge because the criteria are ever-shifting. The film is self-aware to a fault, anticipating and absorbing every critique with a wink and a nudge. “People are going to look at this and think that I was out of control,” Perry’s character says in the first of his many direct addresses to the camera. “That I didn’t know what I was doing, I was lost in my own visions, that I wasn’t conveying anything.” He could be a character in a Christopher Guest mockumentary, the object of our loving derision, but when the seams of Peranson’s and Martin’s low-budget production show, as they do on occasion, he also serves as an ironic narrator, a sly reminder that the filmmakers are in on the joke. To its credit, La última película is often hilarious, particularly a scene in which Perry strolls among the ruins, spewing insults under his breath at the crowds of “white people with dreadlocks.” “I hate America,” he says, suddenly more Bill Hicks than Dennis Hopper. “The end is overdue.”
But La última película only occasionally functions as pure parody. Its finest moment might be the opening shot, a hand-held close-up of “Mayans” with painted faces. They’re standing along a busy street at night, presumably posing for pictures in exchange for tips. In a single, long take, the camera drifts across their faces, eventually landing on one young man, who turns his gaze directly into the lens and strikes a grave and practiced pose. Eventually his mouth cracks into a smile and he laughs, “I’m tired.” The image is human and defamiliarising, and it introduces ironies that become tangential concerns of the larger film, including the nature of performance, the reification of history, and the fraught relationship between spectators and filmed subjects. Peranson’s other professional roles as a festival programmer and editor of Cinema Scope magazine, and Martin’s experiences as an independent filmmaker in the Philippines, give them an insider’s perspective on these issues, particularly the now-ubiquitous practice of trotting out developing-world poverty for the edification of Western art-film audiences.
It’s in these constant shifts in tone that La última película is both most alive and most frustrating. Midway through the film, Perry asks his Mexican guide if he’s ever watched a woman take a bath without her knowledge. That experience of seeing “someone at their most vulnerable and their most exposed” is the character’s guiding ambition as a filmmaker, and it’s also, I think, both a genuine goal of La última película – their conversation is intercut with a disarming shot of a young woman posing self-consciously for the camera – and a good-natured dig at a certain tendency of world cinema on the festival circuit. Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana, which played alongside La última película in TIFF’s Wavelengths program, is a feature-length riff on just that idea. Spray and Velez put a camera in a Nepalese cable car and filmed a series of static portraits of whomever happened to make the ten-minute journey up or down the mountain. Like Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests (1965, 1966), the “Americans” chapter of Jon Jost’s Plain Talk and Common Sense (Uncommon Senses) (1987) and James Benning’s Twenty Cigarettes (2011), Manakamana operates under the notion that eventually (duration is important here) all subjects will drop their camera-ready poses and reveal their “real” faces. It’s the same principle that makes the opening shot of La última película so ambiguous and charming – the transformation of the Mayan warrior’s expression as he tries, and fails, to hold back his smile. Perry punctuates his drunken, late-night discussion of film aesthetics with a straight-faced declaration of what he thinks about when he sees people: “Tub, bubbles, soap, sponge.” And there’s the rub: the character’s dull-witted smugness – all by design and intended for comedic effect – bleeds too often into the voice of the film itself, further muddying its already messy discourse on the values of cinema.
A Consistent Voice
2013 marked my tenth annual trip to Toronto, and I think it’s fair to say that the city has changed more during that time than the festival has. The airport shuttle approaches downtown from the west, and each year I’ve watched with interest as more and more of the real estate along the northern edge of Lake Ontario has been redeveloped into condominiums, all of them indistinguishably tall and glass-covered. An October 2012 report named Toronto “North America’s new high-rise metropolis”: its tally of 147 on-going construction projects was more than twice that of the second-place city, New York, and seven times that of Vancouver, which came in third. The massive influx of new residents, most of them young (the median age in downtown Toronto is now 35), can be felt on the streets and subways, which are noticeably more crowded, and in the shops and restaurants, which are more abundant and diverse. This year, I interviewed Jia Zhangke at the offices of his Canadian distributor, Films We Like, and given his career-long preoccupation with the radical transformation of China’s landscape, the location proved especially apropos. We sat together in a quaint, three-story brick building, surrounded on all sides by high-rise construction projects. The recording of our conversation is punctuated by jackhammers.
TIFF got in on the real estate boom itself a few years ago, when filmmaker Ivan Reitman and his sisters donated some property on the corner of King and John, right in the heart of the entertainment district. The site, which for decades was home to their father’s car wash, has been rechristened Reitman Square, where you’ll now find the TIFF Bell Lightbox and its adjoining 42-story luxury condominium development, Festival Tower. A second, even taller building, Cinema Tower, is under construction immediately behind the Lightbox. (The Cinema Tower’s developers are currently taking reservations for units with names like The Spielberg, The Tarantino, and The Nolan.) As I’ve noted in past TIFF reports, the opening of the Lightbox in 2010 shifted the festival several blocks to the south, and, indeed, many of the theatres that were in use during my first trip to Toronto – the Varsity, the Royal Ontario Museum, and the Cumberland – are no longer part of the festival circuit at all. The drift southward continued this year, when the bulk of non-gala public screenings were moved from the AMC up on the corner of Yonge and Dundas to the Scotiabank multiplex located two blocks from the Lightbox. I suspect that decision will be revisited by festival organisers in the coming months, as crowds at the Scotiabank frequently overwhelmed volunteers and caused unprecedented (in my experience, at least) logistical problems.
Certainly, the past decade has seen TIFF solidify its reputation as a marketplace and as a launching point for awards season. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said are among the handful of films that came out of this year’s festival with that unmistakable momentum, aided in no small part by the marketing power of Warner Brothers and Fox Searchlight and by the star power of Brad Pitt, George Clooney, Sandra Bullock and James Gandolfini, in one of his final roles. In fact, TIFF’s greatest accomplishment in recent years might be its brand management. The “tiff.” wordmark is now inescapable in Toronto, and not just during a few weeks in September. Thanks to its real estate ventures and its year-round programming at the Lightbox, including museum-quality exhibitions (Tim Burton and Grace Kelly have been featured in the past, David Cronenberg: Evolution is currently running, and Stanley Kubrick has been announced for fall 2014), TIFF is much more than just one of the world’s largest and most important film festivals; it’s become a cultural institution.
Despite the evolution of its parent brand and the transformation of its home city, however, the festival itself has changed quite little in the years I’ve attended. Flipping through the 2004 catalogue, I’m struck most of all by the consistency of the programming. Indeed, several of my favourite films at this year’s festival were made by directors who were also programmed nine years ago: Claire Denis with Bastards and L’Intrus, Jia with A Touch of Sin and The World, Gotz Spielmann with October November and Antares, Catherine Breillat with Abuse of Weakness and Anatomy of Hell, Lav Diaz with Norte: The End of History and Evolution of a Filipino Family, and Peter Hutton with Three Landscapes and Skagafjördur. A few of the programs have changed over the years – Real to Reel is now TIFF Docs, Visions was folded into Wavelengths, Canadian Retrospective has been replaced by TIFF Cinematheque (and expanded to include international retrospective titles) – but the voice of the festival is still driven by a small team of programmers, nearly all of whom have been with TIFF for more than a decade. In his festival wrap-up for IndieWIRE, Robert Koehler notes that, in that sense, TIFF has remained loyal to its original mission as a “festival of festivals.” With its massive program, TIFF is able to spotlight the world’s leading auteurs, roll out the red carpet for movie stars, curate programs of avant-garde shorts, trend-hop with issues-oriented documentaries, delight the late-night crowd at Midnight Madness, and screen restored classics. “You’re going to one festival, but you’re really going to many festivals at the same time,” Koehler writes. “You pick how many you want to attend.”
One of my favourite festivals within TIFF might be called “Up and Comers”. Among the many ways TIFF distinguishes itself from the other major fall festivals in Telluride and New York is by the sheer volume of its world premieres. The pressure to show films first – Toronto proudly unveiled 146 features in 2013 – gives programmers license to take more chances on first-time filmmakers. It’s a point of pride for the festival, I think. On a number of occasions, I’ve heard programmers bring established directors on stage with an introductory comment along the lines of, “We’ve shown all of his (or her) films here at the fest, going all the way back to their debut.” An entire section of the festival, the Discovery program, is dedicated to first features, and over the past decade it has brought attention to a number of directors who have since gone on to become “names” in contemporary world cinema, including Maren Ade (The Forest for the Trees, 2004), Giorgos Lanthimos (Kinneta, 2005), Joachim Trier (Reprise, 2006), Pablo Larraín (Tony Manero, 2008), Steve McQueen (Hunger, 2008), Radu Jude (The Happiest Girl in the World, 2009), and Athina Rachel Tsangiri (ATTENBERG, 2010). Because of the large number of world premieres, the final TIFF schedule is always a thick catalogue of intriguing unknowns. The Discovery section alone typically includes 25 to 30 features, and more debuts are scattered throughout other sections. In an effort to improve my odds of choosing wisely, I’ve gone so far as to devise a complex scoring system that gives added weight to first-time filmmakers. This year I saw five films by new directors and was especially impressed by the talent on display.
Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat is not only the best first film I’ve seen this year, it’s among my favourite features of 2013. Cat premiered at Berlin in February, and it’s a credit to the quality of the filmmaking that nearly a year later it continues to be programmed at prestigious festivals (Vienna in October; AFI Fest, Lisbon, and Taipei in November). It’s a small marvel, really – a perfectly conceived and executed study of an extended family who gather in a small apartment to prepare and enjoy a meal together. Particularly on a first viewing, “study” seems just the right word to describe Zürcher’s style. The film’s action is confined mostly to a cramped kitchen, which he cuts at right angles, often shooting from a waist-high position a la Yasujiro Ozu. His static camera tends to focus on a single face from a medium distance, while other bodies move in and out of the frame, busily chopping onions, washing dishes, and mending loose buttons. (I mean “bodies” literally. We frequently see only a torso as someone passes momentarily in front of the camera.) At first glance, Zürcher’s style feels removed and clinical. It’s not until several minutes in, when the mother who is hosting the dinner begins to tell a story about going to the movies, that the deep strangeness of the film takes root. It’s the first of several such reveries. The mother (Jenny Schily), her two older children, and a niece each share stories that are of vague but profound significance to them personally but that fall mostly on deaf, uninterested ears. Within the context of this quiet, elliptical film, however, each of the stories generates the dramatic power of a car chase or explosion.
Rather than Discovery, The Strange Little Cat was screened in Wavelengths, TIFF’s section devoted to “daring, visionary and autonomous voices.” Having now seen Zürcher’s earlier short films, I think it’s a perfect description of the 31 year-old. Much has been made of the fact that Zürcher conceived of Cat in a seminar with Béla Tarr, but the qualities that make his film so distinctive are all there in the earliest work: the confined spaces, the dialogue that is rich in concrete images but that seldom functions as exposition or conversation, a playful affection for things (orange peels, sparrows, spinning bottles, moths, toy helicopters), a fetish for ponytailed women, and most of all a style of portraiture that creates a distinctive kind of communal subjectivity.
Early in the film, for example, when the husband and younger daughter leave to run errands, the camera watches from the kitchen as they make their way down a long hallway and exit through a side door. Zürcher lingers there for a few seconds, relishing the first moments of silence in the film, before cutting to a stunning shot of the mother, who is standing completely still, framed by the light of the kitchen window. She’s lost in thought, with an obscure and curious expression on her face. However, rather than moving to her perspective (what is she staring at?) or into a close-up, as traditional continuity editing would lead us to expect, Zürcher instead cuts to the older son, who is looking at his mother, unnoticed, from across the room. It’s a Zürcher trademark: an eyeline match in reverse. The portrait of the mother is a small point of entry into her subjectivity and also the subjective perspective of her son. The cut forces viewers to revisit the previous shot, to recontextualise it, to actively create a relationship between the two images and the characters framed within them. Zürcher’s montage constantly demands this kind of re-association, as the film’s perspective drifts from character to character. As a result, the film packs a much stronger emotional punch than its 72-minute runtime would suggest.
If Zürcher shares anything with Tarr, it’s the Hungarian’s dark humour and his unsettling ability to expose the tangled mess of affection, bitterness and alienation that characterises so much of human relations. The Strange Little Cat has drawn comparisons with Chantal Akerman’s early work, and while Zürcher’s movie doesn’t take a violent turn quite like Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), it certainly stands alongside that film in its meticulous attention to domestic routines and the barely-suppressed animosity they can mask. In one of the film’s opening shots, the youngest member of the family, Clara (Mia Kasolo), sits at the kitchen table, jotting down notes on a grocery list. When her mother turns on a blender, Clara lifts her head and yells – a wide-mouthed, piercing scream. As soon as the appliance is shut off, Clara stops with a giggle and turns her attention back to the list. It’s a cute moment, a quirky character detail typical of the film, but it’s also just slightly grotesque. In a film this quiet and low-key – the only non-diegetic music is a recurring snippet of the song “Pulchritude” by Thee More Shallows – Clara’s scream is a shocking burst of expressionism that becomes all the more disturbing a few minutes later, when she is slapped suddenly by her mother. There’s a palpable and anxious hostility in The Strange Little Cat that threatens constantly to throw the tone of the film out of balance. Miraculously, it never does. The family laughs through dinner and then parts with hugs and kisses, stubbornly oblivious to the dangers that surround them.
The Strange Little Cat is a rare exception to the rule for debut films at TIFF, in that it doesn’t fit neatly into one of a few immediately recognisable categories. I laughed out loud last year when I saw that TIFF had programmed a film in Discovery called Eat Sleep Die (Gabriela Pichler, 2012) because that title so perfectly encapsulates, with tongue in cheek, a genre of modest-budget art cinema that has gained traction – at least among festival programmers – in the wake of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s success. Shot mostly in natural light, with handheld cameras and non-professional actors, these films are typically small character studies that follow one person (usually under the age of 30) through a series of trials and tribulations before ending on an ambiguous grace note. (Pichler’s film, by the way, is better than most). I have a weakness for these films, mostly because they’re often born of a humanistic sensibility combined with a socio-political urgency, but also because there’s a pleasure in finding new variations on the theme.
Juraj Lehotský’s Miracle, for example, is well worth seeing despite the fact that it hits every genre beat. The film opens at a moment of crisis for the lead character, a troubled teen named Ela (Michaela Bendulová), who has been drugged by her mother and forcibly removed to a correctional facility. Over the next 70 minutes, she suffers every manner of betrayal, degradation, and violence, and Lehotský shoots it at all in what A. O. Scott calls the “neo-neo realist” style. Even the critical language for describing these films is becoming clichéd: Miracle is cool and unflinching, and Lehotský, whose early work was in documentary filmmaking, remains driven by an admirable impulse to expose the hardscrabble lives of Slovakia’s disenfranchised. As is often the case with better films of this sort, Miracle is redeemed by its lead performance. Bendulová, who was discovered in a re-education centre like the one we see on screen, has a remarkable stone face, and when we discover, first, that her lack of expression is partly due to her constant effort to hide her rotting teeth, and, second, that Ela is pregnant, the experience of watching her on screen becomes heightened in complicated and exciting ways. The film swings suddenly to the centre of the fiction/non-fiction spectrum, with Bendulová – her body, her presence – overshadowing the character she’s been asked to play. Aran Hughes and Christina Koutsospyrou’s To the Wolf, which screened in TIFF’s City to City program, is another 2013 debut in this general mode. More observational and still than Miracle, it follows two poor shepherding families as they struggle to survive in a remote Greek village. Aping the style of Pedro Costa’s and Denis Côté’s recent work, To the Wolf ends on a dark note that feels blatantly allegorical rather than inevitable, which robs the film of some of its emotional potency.
Faced with overwhelming programming choices, another tactic for improving the odds of finding a diamond in the rough is to prioritise films that involve known talent in key creative roles. This year, for example, I watched three films at TIFF that were shot by Agnès Godard. (Notably, all of them were shot on video.) Bastards is the eleventh collaboration between Godard and Claire Denis, and it’s the director’s best work since L’Intrus (2004), I think. Godard’s other two collaborators, surprisingly, were first-time filmmakers, Moroccan writer-director Abdellah Taïa and Mexican writer-director Claudia Sainte-Luce. Both Salvation Army and The Amazing Catfish fall into another genre popular among Discovery programmers: the loosely fictionalised autobiography. Like many films of this type, Salvation Army and The Amazing Catfish are self-contained and sentimental, but both Taïa and Sainte-Luce succeed in boring straight to the emotional core of their stories.
Taïa’s film revisits two periods from his life, beginning with his adolescence in Morocco, where he pines for the attention of his cultured older brother and discovers his own homosexuality, before jumping forward a decade to his post-college years in Geneva, where he struggles to find a home, both literally and metaphorically. Taïa does all of the little things right – the things that too often hamstring debut films. In the second act of Salvation Army, the young adult Abdellah (Karim Ait M’hand) interacts with only three or four other characters, but each role is rounded and perfectly cast. A scene in which Abdellah shares a cigarette with a kind, genial stranger on a park bench would have been cut from most films, as it serves no specific narrative function, but here it’s an unexpected reprieve and a simple opportunity to watch Abdellah smile. The Amazing Catfish likewise recreates a moment in its director’s life, when Saint-Luce was in her early-20s and found herself absorbed into the family of a single mother of four who was dying of cancer. The film is always right on the verge of slipping into treacle. Each kid has a readymade defining characteristic (the practical one, the suicidal one, the glamour-obsessed pre-teen, the quiet child with sorrowful eyes), and it ends with them all piling into an old Volkswagon for one last trip to the beach. It’s the kind of film that, with the right marketing and distribution, could find a large popular audience. (Judging by the official poster, it appears their goal is to make it the next Little Miss Sunshine.) But Saint-Luce and Godard understand that the key to this melodrama is the mother and, by extension, the massive hole that will be left in the lives of her children after she’s gone. The film succeeds in that regard because of Lisa Owen, who brings to the role an almost supernatural vitality and warmth. I ran from an early-morning screening of Salvation Army, which ends with a brilliantly staged and deeply moving shot, into a neighbouring theatre for The Amazing Catfish, and I don’t mind admitting I was an emotional wreck for the rest of the day.
In my heart of hearts, I don’t know if I go to festivals for private or shared experiences. I think it might be a wild goose chase for the latter. Rather, could it be that we want to be in proximity of other people’s private experiences for a change?
In his final post from Toronto, written during the long flight home to Vancouver, Adam Cook manages to capture that evanescent something that brings me back to TIFF each year. What I most appreciate about his piece is Adam’s shameless (in the very best sense of the word) openness and sentimentality. Ideally, I would write this report each year during the shuttle ride back to the airport, when images from the films are still fresh in my mind and I’m still physically and emotionally exhausted by it all, when the people and landscape of Toronto are still passing by my window, and when I want nothing more than to go home and see my wife and daughters and nothing more than to stay just one more day to watch one more film with friends. Adam’s observation that a great film festival is simultaneously communal and solitary taps into something essential about cinema itself, I think. Nathaniel Dorsky, whose latest films, Song and Spring, played in Wavelengths, once told me, “In my aloneness I feel the ultimate kind of poignancy and the deepest sense of mystery. . . . And so, like anything that you feel with great tenderness and with great heart, you want to share it.” For all of its marketing and glamour, TIFF remains the best opportunity I’m aware of to see a sizable cross-section of the very best of contemporary cinema, and to see it in excellent theatres with excellent projection, surrounded by large, appreciative audiences, and in close proximity to the artists responsible for the work. In that sense, TIFF is a trip to a museum with friends and fellow travellers, a chance to sit alone with piece of art that is beautiful or upsetting or of great mystery and poignancy and then share that experience in myriad ways.
If I’m veering toward the maudlin here it’s because the films were especially good this year, and because many of them were exceedingly heartfelt and utopian in their concerns. Tsai Ming-liang and his alter-ego, Lee Kang-sheng, have been a welcome presence in my life as a cinephile for more than a decade, and as a last goodbye Stray Dogs is pure catharsis, the most direct and visceral of Tsai’s melodramas. Closed Curtain transcends the literary staginess of its conceit mostly because of Jafar Panahi’s compelling on-screen presence. As in This is Not a Film, we get to watch him in close-up as he surveys a room and imagines its cinematic potential, knowing all the while – experiencing it through his Chaplinesque eyes – that his own artistic potential has been limited by stupid political oppression. Lav Diaz’s Norte: The End of History is both an allegory of fascism and a tremendous piece of theodicy. Its images of Angeli Bayani pushing a vegetable cart are among the finest cinematic instantiations of common grace since Robert Bresson’s Balthazar. Even very different films like Ben Russell and Ben River’s A Spell to Ward off the Darkness and Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves grapple with our pervasive soul-sickness. Russell and Rivers propose utopian communities and spiritual/aesthetic ecstasy as alternatives; Reichardt’s approach is more cynical and existential: she reinvigorates well-worn conventions from film noir and heist pictures to analyse the problems of radical political action in the era of late capitalism.
That the film festival experience is ultimately a string of private moments, only some of which can be shared, has never been more apparent to me than with Götz Spielmann’s October November, a film that was greeted with indifference and mild disappointment by many in the critical community. It’s a fairly simple story of two adult sisters, both successful and miserable in their own ways, who confront the growing tension in their relationship when their widowed father takes ill. The script holds few surprises, and even after a profound family secret is revealed, the film actively resists ramping up narrative tension. As a result, critics have faulted October November for being dramatically inert, especially when compared with Spielmann’s previous feature, Revanche (2008). I’d argue, however, that the two films are essentially the same, with identical preoccupations, both cinematic and metaphysical. I’m a great fan of Revanche, and October November was the best feature I saw that had its premiere at TIFF.
A few minutes into October November, the younger sister, Sonja (Nora von Waldstätten), an up-and-coming film actress, returns home after having dinner with a co-star. Her apartment is all straight lines, right angles, cool colours, and buttoned-up perfection. She’s a woman of immaculate taste, in pulled black hair and a form-fitted blue dress. Spielmann and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht shoot interiors with a Modernist touch, recalling the paintings of Edward Hopper, with their posed, isolated bodies and mixed colour palettes (warm and cold light somehow coexist in many shots). After her dinner date, Sonja steps into an elevator and the doors close behind her, but instead of cutting immediately, Spielmann leaves the camera fixed in the empty, stark lobby for a few extra seconds. It was precisely that moment – that formal gesture, that specific image composition – when the film began to open up for me.
As in Revanche, Spielmann works here in archetypes, establishing a distinct but not uncomplicated dichotomy between the urban and natural worlds. Sonja is soon called back to the family’s mountainside inn, where her sister Verena (Ursula Strauss) tends to their father, her own family, and occasional guests, many of whom are making a pilgrimage to the site of a Christian cross. “So many pilgrims these days,” the father says. “People are looking for something, so they wander about.” If the religious content is even more overt in this film – both Revanche and October November mourn the loss of a family patriarch who has a more traditional faith – it’s integrated into an even more complicated network of allusions. The ghost of Ingmar Bergman looms especially large here, with Cries & Whispers (1972) being the most obvious influence. The father’s prolonged death throes echo Harriet Andersson’s screams of agony, and the final shot of October November, which features both sisters on a wooden swing set, is, I assume, a direct reference. It’s hard not to think also of Bergman’s The Silence (1963), with its estranged sisters and dilapidated country inn, and of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980). October November is, indeed, a Gothic story in the 18th century mode, a film about long-suppressed desire, psychological chaos, and in the words of David Morris, “a sublime utterly without transcendence. . . . a vertiginous and plunging – not a soaring – sublime, which takes us deep within rather than far beyond the human sphere.” (1) Cries & Whispers ends with a kind of cheat. Harriet Andersson’s character is, in a sense, reincarnated by the reading of a letter she left behind. Bergman shows her and her sisters in an idealised moment and redeems the film’s bleak tone with a typical (for him) ode to human affection. The final image of October November offers no such comforts. Sonja and Verena’s final embrace is accompanied only by the sounds of wind blowing through trees and a piece of dissonant piano music. I’m still devastated by it.
Toronto International Film Festival
5-15 September 2013
Festival website: http://tiff.net/thefestival