TIFF 2014, part 3: Short Takes

To conclude my TIFF coverage: some impressions and ideas sparked by ten films …

National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman, France/USA). One quiet but persistent theme in this film is the tension between the separateness of an artwork—its identity firmly associated with a single art form—and its connectedness and co-existence with other art forms. So, for example, the gallery that Wiseman chose to document is unusually small for its international renown, and focuses exclusively on paintings. There’s a brilliant shock cut in which he transitions abruptly from shots of several paintings seen in close-up, to a shot of bright fluorescent lights. This edit carries a wonderful dissonance: it instantly evokes Dan Flavin’s famous fluorescent-light pieces—and is also an immediate reminder that such work is outside the narrow, focused ambit of the National Gallery. At several other instances, the film pulls away from the exclusive focus on painting. A docent, addressing a group of children, breaks off from the work he is describing to talk about the differences between painting and literature. At another point, Nicolas Poussin is analyzed as a painter who strives for an imitation of sculpture. A surprise musical interlude features a piece played live by a pianist in the gallery; and the film climaxes with a dance performance …

P’tit Quinquin (Bruno Dumont, France). Dumont reminds me (never more so than in this lengthy, sustained work) that cinema is an art form of the exterior: of surfaces, of the visible. In other words, cinema shows us with unequalled vividness and detail that no two surfaces are alike, no two bodies, no two faces. Thus, cinema in Dumont’s hands becomes actualized as a medium of radical difference. But Dumont is not a ‘documentary’ filmmaker; he is a self-described expressionist. Which means that his films accentuate and amplify difference, doing it through deformation of all that is ‘normal’, all that is ‘expected’. In his own words: “I think if there’s no distortion or no alteration, there can’t be expression … The distortion has to be either the way you’re going to design the character, the way you’re constructing the dialogues, the type of the faces of the people, the way they move; this is what I like. I like working on making these modifications. Because only with these alterations reality becomes interesting … that’s how it gains the sense and the meaning and it becomes cinema.”

Pasolini (Abel Ferrara, France/Italy). Nicole Brenez’s study of the films of Abel Ferrara came out seven years ago; I revisit this book more frequently than any other director study in my collection. There are hundreds of ideas, insights, and allusions here—but they have revealed themselves to me only gradually over time. Each year I sink a little deeper into this book. Brenez writes in the opening pages that the stylistic principle uniting Cassavetes, Fassbinder, Pasolini and Ferrara is “the exclusive privilege accorded by these filmmakers to the description of human behavior via gestural, actoral, and emotional invention.” Save a few scenes depicting Pasolini’s domestic life—which I found spellbinding—this film lacked the moment-to-moment ‘behavioral inventiveness’ and surprise that I prize so much in Ferrara. When Pasolini’s death arrives, it is rendered conventionally, without a single unpredictable note in any of its detail. Still, it’s not a movie I dislike, even if it feels a world away from his great run of the 1990s …

Goodbye to Language (Jean-Luc Godard, France). I have very limited knowledge and experience of 3D—confined entirely to commercial cinema—but it came as a surprise to see 3D being used dissonantly here. (In my naïveté, I’ve never thought of 3D as being anything but a consonant effect, one that attempts to ‘enhance’ perception without obstructing or problematizing it.) At certain moments, it hurt my eyes to continue watching, I had to look away, take off my glasses for a few seconds, rub my eyes. This effect is very much intended, of course, which brings the meta-cinematic/meta-3D aspect more sharply into focus. In this vein, there is a great, laugh-out-loud formalist joke when the text “3D” is superimposed over the text “2D”—but the latter is distantly in the back, receding, while the former is vibrantly, over-eagerly upfront, ‘in your face’. There is an interesting interview with Godard’s cinematographer Fabrice Aragno at Film Comment.

Voila L’Enchainement (Claire Denis, France). An interracial couple: he’s black (Alex Descas), she’s white (Norah Krief). The decline of their marriage occurs—as it always does—not at a single instant but as a chain of events, thus the title. In one scene, she wants him to tattoo her name on his body. He patiently explains that he can’t do that. He doesn’t want to be branded—like slaves used to be. This 30-minute short feels like minor Denis because of two reasons: it lacks richness of settings (because of budget constraints it was filmed mostly against blank walls, in bare rooms, and in close-up), and, equally important, it lacks movement.

Tales (Rakshan Bani-etemad, Iran). Jonathan Rosenbaum once wrote that a key function of cinema is to generate and disseminate news reports from different parts of the world. (Alas, I can’t remember the piece from which I’m taking—and paraphrasing—this idea.) Tales is often a blunt and heavy-handed film, but in one electrifying scene that is a single ten-minute take on a bus filled with factory workers, we hear about: inflation, drugs, suicide, AIDS, labor unrest, worker exploitation and male domination. What is shocking is that this discussion takes place in an Iranian film. There are characters and situations in this movie that hark back to Bani-etemad’s previous fiction feature, Under the Skin of the City, from over 10 years ago; here is Laura Mulvey at The Cine-Files on that film.

Eden (Mia Hansen Løve, France). In some respects, this bears some similarities to another biographical work, Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air. Both feature a flatness of tone, a lack of modulation of emotional register. Eden is composed of short, low-key scenes: one thing happens, then another, then another—but the film accumulates little dramatic impact as it unfolds in time. It makes for a certain monotony, a lack of intensity. But music goes a good way to restoring life to the film. I liked that it wasn’t about dance music in general but garage in particular. As a character puts it, garage is a combination of ‘cold’ (electronic beats) and ‘hot’ (soul vocals). I particularly appreciated one rare but memorable glimpse into an invisible component of dance music creation: the scene in which a series of electronic drum beats are auditioned on the computer, characterized, evaluated, chosen or dismissed …

Alleluia (Fabrice du Welz, Belgium). The ‘termite-art’ highlight of the festival. Every frame of this film seems to simultaneously carry a fierce awareness of its meager resources and an imaginative response to it. Most of Alleluia (and almost the entire first half) is shot in close-ups of never-ending invention: partially and playfully lit frames, frames divided into zones, expressionist pools of color, bold graphic strokes, starkly inscribed silhouettes. The shots are brief; they don’t linger and flaunt this profusion of creativity. The film is a remake of The Honeymoon Killers (Leonard Kastle, 1969) and Deep Crimson (Arturo Ripstein, 1996); Lola Dueñas, whom I’ve only seen in minor roles in two Almodóvar movies, is indelible as the female lead. In the Q&A, du Welz traced his love of horror to his teenage discoveries of (in the same breath) Hitchcock, Buñuel and Bacon …

The Princess of France (Matías Piñeiro, Argentina). As with its predecessor Viola, I really enjoyed this but feel like I can’t say anything about it until I’ve seen it at least one more time. Piñeiro gave a scintillating Q&A, leaping from one thought, one association to another. He likened his films to constructions such as Alexander Calder’s mobiles (“made of iron but the wind comes in by chance and moves them one way or the other, unsettles their structure”). On the fast-paced rhythm of his films, he said something paradoxical: that the thought of slowing them down never enters his mind, that their speed “provides a freedom to the viewer” because “you [the audience] are at least as smart as the film”. On Facebook, Piñeiro is a voracious cinephile with a broad taste and an eye for arresting frame-grabs, which he posts regularly. Three interviews with him: at Cinema Scope; Film Comment; and Brooklyn Rail.

Horse Money (Pedro Costa, Portugal). The single most beautiful image of the festival was a close-up of Ventura’s nails: long, smooth, delicate and ivory-pink. This film feels like a formidable work—but it resists immediate ‘assimilation’ and ‘critical processing’. Every image here is majestic, unhurried, stone-like: with a silent weight. The stunning opening features a series of Jacob Riis black-and-white photographs of working-class and poor people. In the next ten films I see after I’ve seen a Costa film, I think I am unconsciously more sensitive to the sculptural possibilities of cinema, the way light occupies, models, shows and hides a given space—and it was true here too. Costa gives great interviews; here are some recent ones that allude to Horse Money: at Cinema Scope; Film Comment; and Twitch.

* * *

Recent reading:

— An exciting, recent personal ‘discovery’ for me has been the work of British filmmaker Joanna Hogg. All three of her films (highly recommended) are now streaming at Netflix. See: an interview with her by Paul Dallas at Cinema Scope; and Rachael Rakes’ piece, “Interior Life: Space in the Films of Joanna Hogg”. An interesting detail: the end credits of Hogg’s new film Exhibition name-check this issue of the cinema journal Screen with providing inspiration.

— On the occasion of the release of the Essential Jacques Tati box set, several essays on Tati are now available at the Criterion site: by Jonathan Rosenbaum; James Quandt; David Cairns; and Kristin Ross.

The new issue of the journal e-flux is devoted to Harun Farocki.

— A new Jonathan Rosenbaum essay, “The Future is Here,” on science-fiction cinema.

Cristina Álvarez López on “second chances” in cinema, at Fandor.

Foster Hirsch and James Bell on the “method acting” style at Sight & Sound.

— A blog post by Steven Shaviro: “Art/Money”.

The film section of this month’s Brooklyn Rail includes pieces on Derek Jarman, the avant-garde program of the New York Film Festival, and the documentaries of Eduardo Coutinho.

The entire staff of the Moscow Film Museum has resigned in protest against the newly appointed director who replaced long-time director Naum Kleiman. An open letter has been sent to the Russian Prime Minister.

A petition to stop making “smooth motion” the default on all HDTVs. Via Farran Smith Nehme.

A short video demonstrating the restoration work done on Hiroshima Mon Amour. Via Corey Creekmur.

— Blog discovery: Menthol Mountains, via Leo Goldsmith.

pic: Bruno Dumont’s P’tit Quinquin.

Comments (11):

  1. Nathan

    November 12, 2014 at 5:24 pm

    I missed At Berkeley so I can't say if it would influence my opinion of National Gallery. But as much as La Danse and other, older films I'd seen focus on all aspects of an institution as an institution (in La Danse, time is almost equally shared between administrative meetings and choreography work, with other aspects momentarily thrown in, and I've heard that At Berkeley is the same), National Gallery seemed almost exclusively focused on pedagogical activity, making it much more of a university film than I imagine At Berkeley to be 🙂
    This is pretty understandable, and in the case of a few extraordinary speakers (that man talking about Caravaggio and restoration work had me utterly transfixed) more than welcome. But it was surprising to see so little time devoted to the inner workings of an institution, as opposed to the concrete interactions they hold with the wider public. I wonder if this isn't to be related to his focus in recent years on artistic and/or intellectual institutions (pace Boxing Gym), with an ever-growing fascination for their output rather than their processes.

  2. girish

    November 12, 2014 at 5:58 pm

    Ah, a very insightful point, Nathan.

    I wished NATIONAL GALLERY had more of the "administrative processes" focus myself. The few meetings we witnessed were fascinating, and because we see this one meeting early on that involves a little tussle between the director of the gallery and the public relations person, I was led to believe that there would be more meetings of this kind in the film–and I was left a little disappointed that there weren't.

    One of my big issues with CRAZY HORSE (my least favorite of his films) was just this paucity of scenes that gave us a glimpse into institutional processes–at the expense of (as you say) documenting the "output" of the organization. Just as in GALLERY, the few scenes that did focus on the "inner workings" of the organization left me thirsty for (much) more. The gender politics of CRAZY HORSE were problematic for me too: not because the film was about a nude revue nightclub but because the film didn't seem to engage with and complicate all the rich gender issues that lent themselves so naturally in this context to being taken up by the film.

    I've not seen LA DANSE but (save CRAZY HORSE) have enjoyed all of his films of the last ten years. I've seen nothing older than THE LAST LETTER (2002), and have a lot of catching up to do.

  3. Sachin

    November 22, 2014 at 7:18 am

    Girish, I have yet to see National Gallery but The New Rijksmuseum (4 part version) focuses more on behind the scenes about the Amsterdam museum reconstruction process. Although, I think that may not have been an original decision but something that came about because the museum project didn't go as per plan. For example, the contractor bids came over budget, local cyclists were not happy with the new design. As a result, more than half the film focuses on meetings and efforts to get the project back on track. It is only later in the film that the focus shifts back to the valuable art that is housed in the musuem.

  4. Sachin

    November 23, 2014 at 3:58 am

    Seen National Gallery now and echo Nathan's comment. The film is more art school instructional than I expected. On the flip side, The New Rijksmuseum is more about the effort and process that goes into putting a museum back together. It would be ideal if segments from both works were edited to make a third film 🙂

  5. Anonymous

    November 27, 2014 at 11:55 am

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Anonymous

    November 27, 2014 at 11:56 am

    I am a film critic from Iran and really liked what you said about Tales. It had potentials for a better movie, however the movie does not use these potentials. The scene you mentioned (the bus scene) is the essence of Banietemad cinema which is abundant with social comments and most of the time bold ones.

  7. caboose

    November 27, 2014 at 2:17 pm

    The British writer Iain Sinclair recently turned 70 and programmed a series of 70 films that were important in his life in 70 conventional and unconventional venues around London. A book, 70 x 70, also came out of the project. Here he is in the 20 November issue of the London Review of Books (this article is available free on the LRB site) describing a screening he attended at a college in south London:

    Films that failed to find a niche elsewhere had been rounded up for an eccentric triple bill: the Mexican surrealism of Buñuel’s The Criminal Life of Archibaldo de la Cruz, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie by John Cassavetes, and Too Hot to Handle, which features a couple of location shots of Jayne Mansfield teetering across the road from Lambeth Palace. When I reached the theatre, having passed through the automated barriers and security checks that allowed the atrium to conform to the generic paranoia of airports and Docklands offices, I realised that we were offering pretty much one film for each member of the audience. In my own remote student days, the chance to catch up with a Buñuel of this vintage would have packed out a hall of hard chairs. The Cassavetes and the Soho quickie would have been searched out by enthusiasts happy to make a complicated trip across London, and to use the journey as preparation for the discussions that would follow. The internet has put paid to all that. When everything is out there to be sampled, without having to endure the dystopian theme park of the Elephant, then that is what we choose to do: sample. Snack. Tweak. More choice is no choice. Mindless submersion instead of steady swimming towards a solid point of reference.

    The audience for this special matinee consisted of three people implicated in the project and one freelance viewer. The students were all outside in the sunlight, gifting curls of smoke to the hazy fret of a spectacular roundabout. They dragged and hacked with considerable style. Some punctuated speedy iPhone monologues with leaks of blue air like cones of exhaust fumes. Others posed, prop cigarettes dangling from limp hands. None had the slightest inclination to step inside. Gareth Evans, unofficial master of ceremonies, delivered his impassioned address. He spoke of cinema ‘not as a passing interest, but a passing on of interests, a baton relay in the long race of collective sight’. The London College of Communication event became an obituary for a certain kind of communal engagement, for the conceit of a life measured out in films seen and remembered.

  8. Anonymous

    December 1, 2014 at 12:22 am

    Tellingly enough, Iain Sinclair's article has prompted no letters so far. Unlike the still ongoing multi-issue discussion on the proper difference between a cormorant and a shag.

  9. girish

    December 1, 2014 at 5:08 pm

    Thank you, Hossein! I am wondering: what, in your estimation, are her best films?

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