My conversations during the first two days of the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival were dominated by two subjects: Twin Peaks: The Return, which had aired its final episodes earlier in the week (and ultimately overshadowed every film at the fest), and “the Globe story”, a months-in-the-works investigation into the various intrigues surrounding Canada’s highest-profile cultural organization. TIFF had contracted with a crisis management firm, people whispered. The article was going to be published during the opening weekend to maximise exposure while the A-listers were still in town, they predicted. The article, everyone speculated, would tie together all that was already publicly known – the announced retirement of long-serving CEO Piers Handling, TIFF’s decision a year earlier to trim the festival program by 20%, the departure of beloved Midnight Madness programmer Colin Geddes – and expose to the light the longstanding rumours of inflated payscales for TIFF executives, low employee morale, and debate over the strategic vision of the the Lightbox, TIFF’s expensive, publicly-supported downtown complex.
When the article was finally published, the night before the festival wrapped, the Globe and Mail buried all 6,000 words of it behind the website paywall. I suspect they did so because the final piece is something of a dog bites man story. Tracing the history of the festival all the way back to a “liquid lunch” at the “famed Carlton Hotel” in Cannes, where Toronto lawyer Dusty Cohl first pitched the idea, reporters Barry Hertz and Molly Hayes describe TIFF today as an organisation that has outgrown its original charge and, as a result, is feeling the pains of mission creep. This rocky transition period, Hertz and Hayes argue, has been exacerbated by changing market forces, particularly the growing pressures put on brick-and-mortar exhibitors by streaming services, and by the very real financial responsibilities TIFF took on when it staked its future on the Lightbox, including payments on a $46 million provincial loan. One notable insight from the article is that TIFF’s decision to devote valuable ground-floor space to museum-style installations has proven costly. They have since laid off most of that staff and plan to use the area, instead, for events and press conferences.
Geddes is not mentioned by name in the piece. Nor is Jesse Wente, who announced soon after the festival that he was stepping down as head of programming for TIFF Cinematheque after eleven years with the organisation. Rather, Hertz and Hayes refer only to an “exodus of senior staff”, noting that “three of TIFF’s four vice-presidents and two departmental directors have left since 2016.” Despite on- and off-the-record conversations with more than 40 TIFF employees, both current and former, along with “two dozen other individuals close to the organization”, the authors only hint at the precise causes of the exodus. Michele Maheux, the long-tenured Executive Director and COO, and presumably the person best equipped to address the question, suggests that the overall turnover rate of 18% is typical for an operation that employs so many people under the age of 30. The article doesn’t include any comments from her about the leadership changes. The only insight I can add comes from having spent the last 20 years working for another large, publicly- and privately-supported organisation (a university in the States). That Handling will have directed TIFF for just shy of 25 years strikes me as both remarkable and quaint, as large cultural and educational institutions have in recent years joined their counterparts in the private sector by rotating through CEOs, and by increasing executive compensation, at an accelerating pace. Judging by the article, many of the skills that earned Handling his reputation, in particular his taste and cinephilia, are viewed as less valuable, in a very literal sense, by today’s board. “They now need to keep business top of mind,” one source said. As an aside, I’ll add that over the years I’ve considered program notes by Handling a real recommendation when deciding what new films to see at TIFF. I hope the same is true of his successor.
The 2017 festival was the 14th in a row I’ve attended, so I can say with some confidence that much of the rest of article is a rehash of the same complaints and controversies that boil up every September in Toronto. I’ve catalogued many of them myself over the years in my reports for Senses of Cinema. Early on TIFF embraced its brand as “the people’s festival”, setting itself up in the process for annual charges of encroaching elitism and ticket-gouging. A decade ago, when I attended TIFF as an uncredentialled film buff, I paid $715 for an out-of-town package and attended 36 non-gala screenings. This year, the same experience would have cost a little over $900, for a reasonable annual inflation rate of about 2.5%. Like nearly every other TIFF attendee, I’ve never been invited to join TIFF Noir, which for $35,000 buys members privileged access at the festival, and judging by the one on-the-record comment Hertz and Hayes got from a Noir member – ”Money does make the world go round.” – I’m not sure I would want to. Yes, the lines are occasionally long now; the lines were occasionally long in 2004, too. I remember because while waiting in them I often chatted up strangers who told me about the good old days when TIFF was “the people’s festival” and there weren’t so many long lines.
Likewise, debating the size and quality of TIFF’s program is a long-relished parlour game in Toronto, as it is at every film festival. My personal grievance this year, and every year, is with individual curatorial decisions – for example, Michel Hazanavicius’s Redoubtable finding a spot in the fest at the exclusion of better French films like Claire Denis’s Un beau soleil intérieur (Let the Sun Shine In), Serge Bozon’s Madame Hyde (Mrs. Hyde), Philippe Garrel’s L’amant d’un jour (Lover for a Day), and Arnaud Desplechin’s Les fantômes d’Ismaël (Ismael’s Ghosts). Granted, the debate reached a head last year when Variety critic Peter Debruge described the 2016 edition’s 296 features and 101 short films as a “dumping ground … with hardly any discernible sense of curation.” TIFF seems to have taken note, reducing the total program by about 14% (less than the reported target) and eliminating entirely the Vanguard and City to City programs – both wise choices, in my opinion. Variety responded with a post-fest headline that must have raised some eyebrows in Lightbox offices: “Why the Toronto Film Festival Felt Smaller Than Ever.” The click-bait headline is a bit of a misdirection, however. While authors Ramin Setoodeh and Brent Lang join the trade paper chorus in bemoaning the fest’s “staggering 255 features”, most of which screened without much notice, their real target was the paucity of good films, echoing complaints made earlier this year in Sundance, Berlin and Cannes. It’s worth noting that when describing the competition for buzzy fall titles, Hertz and Hayes take an easy and justifiable shot at TIFF for its opening night film selection, Borg/McEnroe (Janus Metz), but the two openers to which they compare it unfavourably, Venice’s Downsizing (Alexander Payne) and NYFF’s Last Flag Flying (Richard Linklater) also premiered to poor reviews.
The most interesting part of the Globe article, and the section most relevant to this report on the Wavelengths program, is its relatively detailed accounting of TIFF’s weeks-long Olivier Assayas retrospective. Hertz and Hayes dug up some raw numbers – $1,200 in ticket sales for the kick-off screening of Cold Water, another $1,000 for Clean, $630 for Irma Vep – and report that “subsequent screenings averaged about 65 people.” They then pivot to the Lightbox’s new-release programming, which also “failed to catch fire.” That reporters who wax romantic about the days of “liquid lunches” would also frame the success or failure of the Assayas retro in standard box office terms shouldn’t come as a surprise, I guess, but still it’s disappointing. Whether there exists a sustainable business model that will allow TIFF to remain “the people’s fest” and a robust international film marketplace and a year-round exhibitor in a pricy real estate market and a champion for “transformative” cultural experiences (to quote Handling) is a question baked into the history and culture of the organisation. The challenges facing TIFF are only exacerbated, though, by a public discourse that defaults to the anaemic language of entertainment journalism whenever it broaches the subject of cinema. Perhaps not by coincidence, the best new feature I saw at this year’s festival was Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, in which Frederick Wiseman documents a similar debate writ large. (Where is Wiseman’s Festival?)
We’re 130 years into the life of motion pictures. Cinema needs to be advocated for and publicly and privately supported at an institutional level, just as painting, sculpture, theatre, opera, dance and music have long been supported. Contrary to a theme running through the Globe article, I would argue that a “die-hard film geek” – one with tremendous interpersonal skills and leadership acumen, a rare combo, I’ll admit – is exactly who TIFF needs to lead this charge, because cinema must be advocated for in an aspirational voice that elevates the medium. (And by the same token, excluding Denis, Bozon, Garrel, and Desplechin from a program of 255 features is not only a lapse of taste; it denies audiences and critics the opportunity to engage with the medium’s greatest artists and to place their new films – even when they’re disappointing! – in the context of their larger body of work.) In my 2014 report I commended TIFF for integrating into the festival some messaging about its role as a year-round arts institution worthy of philanthropic support. That kind of direct appeal has been less conspicuous since, which makes me hope that the recent hiring of a new major gifts officer is step one in a larger effort to significantly ramp up their annual support and major gift fundraising efforts. Those of us on the outside of the gate might be tempted to scoff at members of TIFF Noir, but their access fees subsidiae, in a roundabout way, decidedly non-commercial programming like TIFF’s recent Kidlat Tahimik retrospective. We in the philanthropy business call this the 90/10 rule: 90% of gift dollars come from 10% of donors. It might seem crass to state this all so openly, but this is part of the model necessary to establish and sustain institutionalised support of cinema and, hopefully, expand that support beyond large metropolitan areas.
When TIFF announced it would be trimming the festival program in 2017, my first concern was for Wavelengths. If the board and leadership were considering a “pivot away from transformative cinematic experiences toward brand-friendly marketing opportunities”, as the Globe article puts it, then the fest’s strand of experimental programming would seem a likely focus of attention for hawkish budget-cutters. Indeed, The New York Film Festival decided this year to not bring back Explorations, a similar program of formally daring features, after a trial run in 2016. Now in its 17th year, and its 12th under the direction of programmer Andréa Picard, Wavelengths exemplifies the notion of cinema as art, full stop, and as such is absolutely essential to TIFF’s broad mission.
When the 2017 Wavelengths program was announced there was, surprisingly, one bit of good news: the four programs of short films had been moved from cinema 4 to cinema 3 at the Lightbox, adding nearly 50% more seats. Always tough tickets to get, each of the four screenings still approached a sell-out, and the projection team skillfully managed the complicated, multiple-format programs. Wavelengths did absorb significant cuts, however. The feature count dropped to 12 this year, down from 14 in 2016 and 16 in 2017, and video installations were eliminated entirely. In my 2016 report I argued that Picard’s championing of gallery work by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Shambhavi Kaul, Ana Mendieta, Sharon Lockhart, Albert Serra, and others was a kind of declaration – that this work “is significant and that Wavelengths is now a global platform for avant-garde work of significance.” Seeing Mendieta’s short films in both a cinema and a gallery was revelatory last year. I wish the same treatment had been afforded to Erkki Kurenniemi, whose short film Florence (1970) preceded Blake Williams’ Prototype, or to Anne Charlotte Robinson, whose Pixillation (1976) played in the second shorts program and whose work is being restored by the Harvard Film Archive. TIFF was for years the only major festival in North America that programmed installations alongside celebrity-packed premieres. The elimination of Future Projections, as it was called from 2007-2014, seems both unwise and unnecessary, as what little amount, relatively speaking, it cut into to the fest’s bottom line would pay for itself in branding and communication value.
Note: The Wavelengths shorts programs were especially strong this year, so the remainder of this report will spotlight a few films of particular interest. From the features lineup I’ll add a quick recommendation for five standouts: Narimane Mari’s Le fort des fous, Wang Bing’s Mrs. Fang, Pedro Pinho’s A Fábrica de Nada (The Nothing Factory), Williams’ Prototype, and Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette, l’enfance de Jeanne d’Arc (Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc).
Onward Lossless Follows is the latest in a series of films by Michael Robinson that meld his on-going preoccupations with kitsch and pop culture ephemera with what we, during my long-ago Southern Baptist days, called “givin’ testimony”. Line Describing Your Mom (2011), Mad Ladders (2015) and the new film are each narrated by found audio recordings of visionaries – a dreamer, a prophet and a preacher, respectively – whose slow drawls share a cadence and an unshakable conviction. In Onward Lossless Follows, Robinson pieces together footage he’d collected over the past decade, some of it found (stock images of women cheering in front of laptops, a “stranger danger” video, black and white science education films), some of it original (16mm footage of the beach and woods at Headlands State Park where he later shot Circle in the Sand , lo-def video of a neighbour mowing his lawn). On the surface, Onward Lossless Follows is a dark, disturbing piece in the “amusing ourselves to death” vein, presenting a world decimated by climate change while each of us discovers our own bliss in the sensual, pseudo-religious pleasure of computers, phones and other assorted digital beeps that occupy so much of our attention. But as the preacher rails against the modern world for putting its faith in science, the particular register of his voice touches a euphoria that manages to counterbalance the film’s melancholy and cynicism. “Young man, you look miserable!” he chides. “There’s no help in starrrrrs.” And he’s not wrong. Robinson resolves the film’s tension by turning the “stranger danger” video into an impossible love story and by transforming TV news footage of a horse being airlifted out of a ravine into a moment of ecstatic splendour that, lord willin’, might just redeem us all.
Onward Lossless Follows opened Appetite for Destruction, the first of the four Wavelengths shorts programs. In her program notes, Picard describes its six films as “rebellious, even mischievous forms of resistance” to the “pessimistic prognoses” of the day. Fern Silva’s The Watchmen made for an especially good pairing with Onward Lossless Follows. On 14 October, 2016, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner ordered the closure of F-House at the Stateville Correctional Center, an hour outside of Chicago. The last Panopticon-style facility in operation in the United States, F-House was built in 1922 and was described by a prison watchdog group as a “sensory nightmare” and “unsanitary, inhumane, and degrading for prisoners and staff alike.” Silva uses the prison as a jumping off point for a sci-fi-inflected reexamination of Foucault’s metaphor some four decades after Discipline and Punish. The visual material of The Watchmen includes footage from Stateville, along with images of Old Joliet Prison a few miles away (most notably a shot of John Belushi’s character being released at the beginning of The Blues Brothers [John Landis, 1980]) and a massive, decaying array of Panopticons at Presidio Modelo in Cuba. More mysterious are three found audio recordings that together narrate a kind of “Invaders from Mars” story. In the first, a man recalls seeing visions of blue light pulsing in the night sky. In the second, a paranoiac is comforted by a woman who tells him, “Look! Look at the picture on the television set. You are calm. You are watching a rerun.” And in the third, a police officer reports to his dispatcher that he’s experiencing a form of mental paralysis during a stop. “They” get out of their car, approach his cruiser, and blind him with a bright flash. As the officer loses consciousness, he asks, “Are you the watchmen over this place? Are you the watchmen over this place?” The Watchmen is bookended by images of a nude man standing alone in nature. Is this the watchman? And, if so, is he a liberating or destructive force? Silva’s film is so fascinating because it’s populated by glaring metaphors that resist simple explanations. Like the women in Robinson’s stock footage, who are doomed to spend eternity masquerading the appearance of rapture, humanity in The Watchmen is pretty well fucked and in need of salvation. The final image is from the centre of one of the ruined Cuban Panopticons. As the camera spins, faster and faster, the window slats of the distant prison walls become like the photos in a zoetrope. That the cells are abandoned and the walls are crumbling suggests progress of a sort, but the experience is too frenzied and dizzying to offer much assurance.
Walter Benjamin’s story, “Fantasy Sentences” (1927), imagines a game between a man and an 11 year-old girl. He gives her five words: “pretzel, feather, pause, lament, doohickey”; she intuits connections and conjures meaning from them: “Time curves like a pretzel through nature.” Dane Komljen’s Phantasiesätze (Fantasy Sentences) borrows not only Benjamin’s title but also a palette of images from the story, along with its formal interest in ellipses or parataxis, a rhetorical strategy that avoids connectives between words – “I left. She cried.” as opposed to hypotaxis, “When I left, she cried.” The film opens with a garbled audio recording of a Russian storyteller who describes, in apocalyptic terms, the grotesque transformation of a man into an animal – ”his skin tears open, blood flows. The skin slides to the ground.” Komljen then cuts to a montage of 8mm home movies, in black-and-white and colour. In the first few, children and their parents sled happily outside Soviet-era, brutalist housing complexes. We then see them in more idyllic settings – picking berries, canoeing, learning to swim, petting horses. Komljen’s next transition, away from the traditional pastoral, is signalled by a shift to lo-def digital. He softens the transition by bridging the audio, which is simple, natural sounds of wind and birdsongs. Finally, Komljen moves to hi-def video, returning us, presumably, to the site of the first home-movie images. Long since abandoned, the buildings have been reclaimed by nature. Phantasiesätze is in dialogue not only with Benjamin’s notion of history as human catastrophe and progress but also with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). There are formal similarities – the electronic score, a hand-held shot through a wooded path that mirrors the railcar journey into Tarkovsky’s “Zone” – but the loudest echo is Phantasiesätze’s final image, a three-minute static shot inside a decaying room in the ruins of Chernobyl. The audio recording returns, now even more distorted, as if the tape had been found all these years later, warped by the elements and portending calamity. Like Tarkovsky’s stalker, author and scientist, we the viewers are left alone there in the room, on the threshold of revelation.
The first few images in Rawane Nassif’s Turtles Are Always Home could be mistaken for footage from a camera test video on YouTube. Wide-lensed and hyper-saturated, the opening shots are from the perspective of a slow moving boat, floating down a concrete canal. The camera looks up at passing pastel buildings and at a blue, cloudless, graduated-filtered sky. It’s stunning. Perfect. Like Venice, but immaculate and deserted. There are no signs of life until the second cut, when the camera moves onto land and the sounds of lapping water are replaced by a rumbling jet engine. A plane passes low overhead, and then another. The Pearl, a man-made island in Dohar, Qatar, boasts nearly 300 shops and restaurants on its website, and a recent article in Gulf Times reports that more than 25,000 people now call the island home, but in Turtles Are Always Home, Nassif documents its Venetian-themed Qanat Quartier district in an early, unspoiled stage of development. Pitched in sales materials as “an intriguingly complex area in which a true Riviera lifestyle can be enjoyed,” Qanat Quartier is as rich and “intriguingly complex” an example of the simulacrum as you’re likely to find. Nassif, however, is after something else. (Which is not to say she’s not also fascinated by the simulacral nature of The Pearl; this film should find a place on many a philosophy and critical theory syllabi.) Rather, she wants to observe and understand – and by doing so leave a trace of herself on – this place, her latest temporary home. “My dear country is a suitcase and I am always a traveller,” Nassif sings over the final shot, reinforcing the metaphor of the film’s title. She trains her camera on the art-directed photos of light-skinned models and luxury goods that shroud the windows of empty storefronts, and then, by pulling focus or tracking backward, brings her own reflection into relief. It’s an uncanny and bracing viewing experience that manifests the simultaneous pleasure, melancholy, and anxiety of dislocation.
Turtles Are Always Home screened in the second Wavelengths shorts program, Fluid Frontiers, which borrowed its name from Asili’s closing film. Asili in turn borrowed the title from Karolyn Smardz Frost and Veta Smith Tucker’s 2016 book, A Fluid Frontier, a collection of essays that explore the legacy of slavery and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River region. It’s a ripe subject for Asili, who has said Fluid Frontiers will be the final installment in his five-film series about the African diaspora that began with Forged Ways (2010). Drawn to the area by an invitation from Media City Film Festival’s Mobile Frames residency program in Windsor, Ontario, and nursing an interest in Detroit’s Broadside Press, a publisher of radical black poetry in the 1960s and 1970s, Asili travelled back and forth across the Ambassador Bridge and invited strangers on both sides of the border to read poems in front of his camera. Asili often shoots from a low angle, which allows the reader a privileged perspective relative to the viewer and at the same time situates the reader in a particular, emblematic context. The strategy also makes for some stunning graphic compositions. In the first reading, a black man is silhouetted against an indigo sky and the straight lines of a street lamp, like a figure from an Aaron Douglas painting. In another, the reader stands in front of a brick wall that advertises “Chene Liquor. Beer. Fine Wine. Money Orders.” The readings in Fluid Frontiers are similar to the long-duration shots of smokers in James Benning’s Twenty Cigarettes (2011) in that they capture each subject’s gradual transition from “performer” to “real” person and activate, by way of sync-sound recordings of passing traffic or chirping insects, the unseen space just outside of the frame. Another interesting precedent is Nicolás Prividera’s Tierra de los Padres (Fatherland, 2011), in which visitors to the La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires read poems and letters that tell the often violent and tragic history of the region. As in Fatherland, the most affecting moments in Fluid Frontiers come when the reader stumbles – these are all cold, first takes – into some personal connection with the written voice he or she is speaking into existence. The inscrutable expression on the face of a bookstore clerk after she reads from Sonia Sanchez’s We a BaddDDD People (1970) is magical, like a phantasmagoric conjuring of Harriet Tubman and Sanchez and a thousand other black women too.
Kevin Jerome Everson’s Brown and Clear was shot at his uncle William Wanky Everson’s place. I don’t know how people in Northeast Ohio refer to rooms like this. It’s not a bar, exactly. In the South we’d probably call it a joint. Everson buys bourbon and vodka, rebottles it, and then sells it by the glass outside the scrutiny of local liquor boards and accountants. Brown and Clear consists of only two shots (pun intended?). The first is a static, underexposed closeup of seven empty, backlit bottles neatly arranged so that the one furthest in the background is visible in sharp, shallow focus, while the bottles nearest to the camera are made abstract by bokeh blur. (Everson has an enviable knack for making warm, grainish images with a digital camera.) The bottles are different shapes and have different labels, some of which are visible through the glass. Uncle Everson then fills each bottle with bourbon, beginning in the foreground and working his way back. When he finishes, much of the backlight has been blocked out by the “brown” and the screen is mostly dark. The shot is a variation on the simple genius of Everson’s Ninety Three (2008), in which an elderly man blows out his birthday candles in slow motion, eventually leaving the theatre or gallery in total darkness. The second shot is again a shallow-focus closeup of bottles, but this time the camera is handheld and active. We see William Everson’s hands as he fills bottles with vodka and screws on the caps. We also hear him for the first time. When one cap doesn’t fit he says, “I’m gonna have to go behind me and get two more tops, okay?” Everson grunts “mhmm” in reply, and with that brief exchange the film suddenly unfolds in ways that exemplify the thorny pleasures of Everson’s best work. Brown and Clear is typical for Everson in its documentation of African-American labour and an alternative economy that are hidden from (a white, gallery-going audience’s) view. Everson’s immense body of work is also always a documentation of his own labour and of his evolving, complex relationship with “home”. With that “mhmm”, what begins as a formal experiment transforms into a portrait of kinship. I can imagine Everson fighting the urge to respond, “Man, you’re fucking up my shot,” just as when his uncle wipes down the bar and says, “Okay?” I can imagine him thinking, “Are we done yet?” There’s an impatience in both voices but also experience and pride.
Two minutes into Wojciech Bąkowski’s Yeti, the filmmaker appears in a medium closeup, staring directly into the camera – presumably the camera on his Nokia cellphone. Like every other shot in the film, he’s framed in portrait mode. His clean-shaven head – which along with a black mock turtleneck, black jeans, and black shoes comprise his signature look – rotates mechanically from side to side as cutout images of his passport and that Nokia phone dissolve into view, superimposed to his right and left. It plays like an homage to 40 year-old visions of a 21st-century future, a mashup of THX 1138 (George Lucas, 1971), Sleeper (Woody Allen, 1973) and Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982). Video-making is only one part of Bąkowski’s practice, which also includes performance, audio installations, animation and music. Yeti fits somewhere in the middle, as the most compelling moments are essentially documentation of his performed interactions with spaces in and around his apartment. He triggers the motion detectors that control the building’s lights and doorlocks. He taps the back of his head against a wall and shuffles forward and backward, up and down a single step. Over each shot he superimposes more cutouts of more products. I’ll admit to not being completely in tune with Bąkowski’s project, but the image of him as one more glitching automoton in a world of branded consumer goods is uncanny and playfully unnerving.
“The Internet Has Lost Its Damn Mind About The New Pink iPhone,” declared Buzzfeed on 10 September, 2015. Four days later The New Yorker put its own spin on the story with Rebecca Mead’s “The Semiotics of ‘Rose Gold’,” in which we learn that rose gold is an alloy of gold and copper that has fallen in and out of fashion over the past few centuries. Mead ticks off the names of high-end designers who currently sell rose gold products – Piaget, Van Cleef & Arpels, Diane von Furstenberg, and Alexander Wang – before concluding that we live in a “rose-gilded” age “in which a technology company can make fifty billion dollars in a fiscal quarter, largely on the strength of persuading people who already have a phone … that they need to buy a slightly different version.” Mead is among the company of philosophers, sociologists, academics and novelists who are referenced explicitly in Sara Cwyner’s Rose Gold, which had its international premiere in Wavelengths after screening as part of Cwyner’s solo show at Foxy Production in the spring. All of that context is necessary, I think, for describing the film, which is densely crowded with images and aphorisms. Rose Gold begins with the sound of a woman inhaling as if she’s about to speak; instead, a man speaks “for” her: “They invented this colour, rose gold, and I’m mesmerised. A new object of desire.” Throughout the seven-minute film, the soundtrack splices together readings of texts that have been grouped by subjects or themes: clocks, advertising, the Hoover Dam and U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Melamine kitchenware, the Donald Trump Access Hollywood tape, the children’s book Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, and on and on. “His” voice dominates, but “hers” chimes in as well from time to time. After transcribing it all, I can’t spot any obvious motivations for why particular lines are spoken by a woman. Cwyner, whose show included a number of collages, seems to layer audio with a collagist’s sensibility, modulating the harmony and dissonance of voices as sound. The images, likewise, come at a rapid-fire clip. Most were shot in her studio space and feature assorted totems of pre-digital life: along with her collection of Melamine cups we see rotary phones, Avon perfume bottles, analogue clocks, costume jewelry and other thrift store finds. Rose Gold is a beguiling piece of false nostalgia. Cwyner is both disgusted and fascinated by the aesthetic/ideology that would produce something as magnificently gauche as Trump Tower, as we all are. For such an analogue film, the pleasure of watching Rose Gold is actually akin to the adrenalin rush of opening your smartphone and hearing that deafening chorus of social media and advertising voices. “And always the feeling that there is too much to handle,” he and she say, their voices overlapping, just out of sync.
The third program, Figures in a Landscape, ended with Flores, Jorge Jácome’s 25-minute, alternate-reality fantasia on flowers, iconography, beautiful male bodies and the colour purple. In a first-person voiceover, “the filmmaker” informs us that he has travelled to the Azores islands in order to document the hydrangeas that have so completely overrun the landscape, all inhabitants have been forced to evacuate for Portugal, leaving behind only a small military force and some entrepreneurial honey makers and flower merchants. Jácome and co-writer David Cabecinha work a few faux-documentary devices into the film – a man is seen and heard putting on his lavalier mic, a worker in the honey factory turns away when she sees the camera pointing in her direction – but the conceit is primarily an excuse to create strange and sensuous purple-stained images of men and honeybees in an otherworldly landscape. With its references to the church, colonial history and the military, Flores invites ideological readings, but that seems a relatively unproductive critical path to take. Jácome is deeply indebted to Claire Denis, and the film’s politics, along with many of its images, are second-generation copies of Beau Travail (1999) and L’Intrus (2004). I offer that as a back-handed by sincere compliment. “I had a dream you could use in your film,” a soldier tells the filmmaker, “a dream in which our camouflage was purple and blue instead of brown and green.” Flores is a mesmerising viewing experience that, like Denis’s more abstract work, brings into being the logic and splendour of reverie. This film is a hell of a calling card. (That’s another back-handed but sincere compliment.)
Dan Browne’s Palmerston Blvd. was filmed over the course of a year in a single room of his downtown Toronto home. It opens with a wide, eight-second, time-lapse shot of a bay window with a table, three chairs and a few potted plants beneath it. Light levels are set to reveal the contours of the room, so the sunny world outside is overexposed and barely defined. With the first cut, the camera is repositioned nearer to the table and turned 45 degrees to the left, giving us a better view of two chairs and a large tree just outside the window. Over the next 15 minutes, Browne varies shot durations and camera setups but sticks to this basic strategy: documenting the changing light (and life) of the room and the neighbourhood around it in accelerated time. Palmerston Blvd. is so neatly conceived, I wondered if the viewing experience might seem redundant, or if the concept might not be able to sustain the relatively long run time. In fact, it was the highlight of the fourth and final shorts program, As Above, So Below. Working within tight formal restraints, including silence, Browne was forced to focus his creative attention on the limited set of tools at his disposal and constantly reinvent familiar images. I especially like a shot four minutes in, when he finds a new composition from a slightly lower, slightly skewed angle that turns the window frames into a kind of cubist collage. Gradually, other signs of life appear – first the family cat, and then split-second glimpses of Browne and his partner, and then finally, near the midpoint of the film, an infant swing and high chair. Seven years ago at Wavelengths, I found myself crying unexpectedly during a screening of John Price’s Home Movie, a 35mm, hand-processed study of his growing children. I explained afterward to a friend that Home Movie expressed a particular sensation I’d experienced daily during the five months since my first child was born. I called it a “nostalgia for the present” – a constant, conscious realisation that this moment is already gone and that someday, maybe soon, maybe in the distant future, I would desire deeply to return and reexperience it. I already felt the ache. Palmerston Blvd. has the same effect. When winter snows arrive and the halcyon light falls lower in the sky, the room becomes every warm room, with the sounds of a hissing radiator or the smell of a furnace. And when, at the end, the signs of Browne’s life are removed one by one – the toys and then the plants and then the table and chairs – it provokes a deep-in-the-bones feeling of loss, not only for a particular home (that universal, melancholy experience of locking a door for the last time) but also for a particular domesticity, for a particular light.
Toronto International Film Festival
7-17 September 2017
Festival website: http://www.tiff.net/tiff/