Archive for month: September, 2013

3 things I didn’t like about 12 Years A Slave [TIFF post 3]

19 Sep
September 19, 2013

“The real model for this film is Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, with its relentless depiction of torture, along with every slasher movie that cloaks its intentions in a higher message. Violence has become the measure of verisimilitude. If it’s bloody, it looks real. This illusion allows us to enjoy what violence does provide: pleasure. If it weren’t so exhilarating, it wouldn’t be so popular.”

— Richard Goldstein, “The Backlash Passion: A Messianic Meller for Our Time”

Far be it from me to doubt the artistic merit of the film that delivers the best CGI-bloodspray-enhanced flogging scenes—money shots and all—since Mel Gibson’s cinematic milestone Passion of the Christ, but I think that the bandwagon now carrying Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave to apparently inevitable Oscar glory will have to move on without me. There are several problems with this film but let me focus on three.

Bookish prose as film dialogue. Hey, there are no absolutes in film—what works in one might not in another, and so forth. But I feel the question of whether people ever talked in daily life like characters in Victorian fiction has been clearly settled on the “no” side.  So if you’re going to deploy that kind of prose as dialogue in a film, it’s bound to feel awkward unless it’s delivered with a kind of arch deliberateness.  I kind of think that the only way you can get away with that sort of thing now is as a kind of satire or possibly a kind of meta-commentary on the contents of the film.  But this film seems to think it’s being more historically accurate by taking unbelievably meticulously constructed lines of dialogue seemingly verbatim from the source text. The net effect for me as a viewer was to repeatedly push me outside the story.

Psychosis as truth. If this movie proves one thing it’s that Michael Fassbender is the new Al Pacino—a scenery-chewer for the 21st century.  His performance in this film, I will say, is quite remarkable.  But for me the whole character is utterly off-point. As David Cox has trenchantly pointed out in The Guardian, “The cause for which McQueen’s film fights, long ago prevailed. Now, its function isn’t to rub filmgoers’ noses in unacknowledged guilt; it is to let us bathe in self-righteous satisfaction at our moral superiority to our woefully benighted forbears.” And who better to serve as a fulcrum for this someone who is not, shall we say, an “average” or “typical” slaveowner (if he were, slavery would have been over in a generation because all of the slaves would be dead or disabled).  No, it must be an absolute sociopath/psychopath/monster.  This guarantees that we will learn nothing from this cinematic encounter with slavery.  I could branch out from this point to talk about how the movie in general has types rather than characters, but I’m trying to keep this list short.

Violence as truth. Steve McQueen seems to have one core aim with this film—to construct scenes of violence that the average viewer might well experience as some of the most shocking they have ever seen. This is how he cinematically makes the argument that slavery is the worst social institution that humanity has ever invented (and short of actual sociopaths who would ever disagree with that?). The intended effect seems to be that we come away feeling how excellent it is that the full truth of the terribleness of slavery has finally been presented in cinematic form.  Somehow the spectacle of extreme violence has become our contemporary guarantor of truth. That was real, man. That’s what it was really like. We learn nothing, we congratulate ourselves, we anoint our celebrity actors as culturally important. We shower awards. Count me out.

 

the new dissident cinema [TIFF ’13 post 2]

16 Sep
September 16, 2013

The Square (dir. Jehane Noujaim — Egypt)
Omar (dir. Hany Abu-Assad — Palestine)
Ladder to Damascus (dir. Mohammad Malas — Syria)
Manuscripts Don’t Burn (dir. Mohammad Rasoulof — Iran)
Closed Curtain (dir. Jafar PanahiKambozia Partovi — Iran)

While it’s been repeatedly commented that the running theme of this year’s TIFF was torture—and indeed, 10 of the 21 films I saw either depicted or referenced it—that didn’t seem nearly as significant to me as a substantial new wave of dissident cinema. While much of the attention in this genre was soaked up by the Bill Condon directed festival opener The Fifth Estate, the riveting documentary The Square was the deserving winner of the People’s Choice Documentary award.

The film follows six Egyptian revolutionaries from the February 2011 through to the deposing of Morsi—at the post-screening Q&A the Cairo-raised/Harvard-educated director Jehane Noujaim confessed that the film was only finished its edit and delivered the day before the festival. A few subtitle typos and errors are the only evidence of the haste with which it was finished—the film is a thorougly slick, smartly crafted adrenaline rush that literally has the freshness of last month’s headlines. I will not soon forget the passion of the young secular activist Ahmed Hassan, one of 6 Egyptians whose story the film follows, but equally moving and charismatic is Magdy Ashour, who is loyal to the Brotherhood but even more loyal to his conscience.

Of the five films considered here the one that looks most multiplex-ready in terms of production values and genre chops is the suspense thriller Omar, which tells the story of a young Palestinian resistor whose participation in the cold assassination of an Israeli soldier leaves him caught between the resistance, the security police, and the young woman that he loves.  The film was made with mostly Palestinian producers and crew and invites comparisons to last year’s masterful Ziad Doueiri film The Attack, but is perhaps rather less nuanced and more about skillfully ratcheting up the suspense all the way to a shocking climax. And of the many TIFF screenings depicting torture this is probably the only one where the torturers are Israeli security police.

Omar was made almost entirely on location in the West Bank, and the Academy Award-nominated Abu Assad was able to shoot without fear of significant interference, unlike the other films in this category.  Ladder to Damascus, for instance, was made almost entirely in secret by Syrian auteur Mohammad Malas.

The film depicts a kind of Syrian nation in microcosm—a number of people rooming together in one house, Muslim and Christian, working people, intellectuals, artists, even a soldier. The group are threatened by the civil war happening all around the house—Malas finding the suitable metaphor for depicting both an idealized Syrian community—and human lives themselves—under duress.

Permission to shoot was obtained by submitting a false script to the Syrian film authority.  At the post-film Q&A, Malas was asked how the shooting license was policed, and he explained that the resulting film must match the approved script in order to receive a second license—a license to distribute. In the case of this film he never intended or expected to receive the second license—his only hope is that audiences around the world will get to see what Syrians cannot. In order to protect the safety of the actors and crew they never received copies of the script.  The mostly amateur cast were given pages of script on the day of shooting and expected to learn their lines on the spot.

While this approach makes for some rough edges with the performances, the same can’t be said of the brilliant cinematography by Joude Gorani, which is quite simply visually stunning.

The most restrained and low-budget-looking film on this list is Mohammad Rasoulof’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn, this one also shot in secret, but in Iran. The title, a nod to 1930s Soviet dissident Mikhail Bulgakov, provides a textual link back to previous generations of covertly-produced dissident art.  The film depicts how the Iranian government started using contract killers in the 1990s to assassinate writers and intellectuals under a layer of plausible deniability.  The pacing is slow, the performances extremely restrained, but when the film loops around at the end to retell the opening scene, the payoff offers more than mere plot closure.

The combination of this film and the more brightly-lit but guarded Closed Curtain (described in a previous post) suggests that Jafar Panahi’s This is Not a Film has touched something off—with today’s digital technology, what cannot be filmed with official sanction can be covertly created to a standard that can touch global audiences via the festival circuit and the internet.

Closed Curtain (and This Is Not A Film) / Shivers [TIFF ’13 Day 1]

07 Sep
September 7, 2013

Before getting on the plane to Toronto I decided to do a little remedial viewing and finally watch Jafar Panahi’s much-touted low-budget cinematic intervention/protest This Is Not a Film. In a manner befitting a film that was shot on a shoestring and smuggled out of Iran on a USB drive, I watched it in a format that is pretty much the opposite end of the quality spectrum from the sumptuous screens at the Lightbox.  I went to this page hosting the film on a pirate website and downloaded it using this free Firefox plug-in, which yielded a 278 Mb Flash video file on my hard drive.  I then processed it into an iPad-friendly file format using HandBrake and loaded it on my aging 1st gen iPad for the trip.

Watching Panahi improvise low-budget ways around the multiple legal restrictions on his filmmaking is inspiring—a strange, low-key partial triumph of the human spirit wrapped within the melancholy of long-term house arrest for a supposed thought crime.   Nothing so shambolic should be so compelling and yet I couldn’t stop watching him watching DVDs of his own films, talking on camera to his visitor/co-filmmaker, visiting websites with his MacBook, and doing some filming of his own with his iPhone.  My compressed/low-def Apple-based set-up seemed like the right way to watch this one.

Closed Curtain

I ended the day with a much more pristine Lightbox viewing of Panahi’s more recent, more filmic, but perhaps less compelling Closed Curtain. His new piece has an interesting, subtle, and nuance intertextual relationship with the previous film, but what This Is Not a Film achieves with simple conversation and serendipitous encounters (and surprise bursts of authentic emotion), Closed Curtain attempts with a kind of murky symbolism that almost makes me think I would put up with something more heavy-handed if only it were more direct.

Clearly Panahi cannot be more clear if he wanted to—his straining at the limits of what he is allowed to say right now is heroic but leaves me with little more than a general concern for his well-being and a fervent wish that he will be able to get back to making the films that he wants to make.

Shivers

On opening day afternoon I was very excited to see David Cronenberg introducing a digitally restored print of his first commercial feature: “an adolescent filmmaking exercise that maybe did some things that hadn’t been done before,” he said, after sharing a tidbit that Dan O’Bannon had seen Shivers before he wrote his Alien script.

The digital print is thick with filmic grain, which will please purists when they view this on what I presume will be a forthcoming Blu-ray release, although I do wonder sometimes, when I see the circular reel-change indicators left in the image rather than extrapolated out, whether the purity thing can be taken just a little too far. Just a quibble really.

TIFF ’13 film agenda

02 Sep
September 2, 2013

Yep, the blog is back after a six-month hiatus—I am getting into gear for another ten days of bingeing on world cinema.  Here are my picks for which  I have locked down tickets so far: