Field Reports: Toronto Film Festival #7 (Stults)

Fri, Sep 12, 2008

When It Was Blue

Even as early as Cannes, the consensus view was that 2008 is not a great year for film. And the rest of the year – including the overall lineup at Toronto (which had many egregious omissions this year – most stinging for me are the absences of the acclaimed new films by Lucrecia Martel and Hong Sang-soo) – is bearing this out. That said, I saw two truly great films at the festival (Demme's Rachel Getting Married and the first film discussed below) and several very good ones. And there were probably twice that number of potentially good and great films that I wasn't able to schedule in. So as these films trickle out to theaters in the coming months, there will be plenty of worthwhile films to see. I would just not advice watching them in five-films-a-day chunks for a week straight.

Here are a few brief comments on notable films seen during my final days at the festival:

When It Was Blue (Jennifer Reeves)
It's a bit hard for me to talk about this one right now. Even though the national press thinks that the only things worth reporting on at the Toronto festival happen on the red carpet, I think many people who were in attendance at this capacity screening would agree that it was the event of the festival. Like Light Work Mood Disorder and He Walked Away, the two works Jennifer Reeves screened in the Wexner Center's Performance Space last October, When It Was Blue is a double 16mm projection with live music (provided by the multi-instrumentalist Skúli Sverrisson); it is also one of the projects that Reeves worked on with her 2006-2007 Wexner Center Media Arts Residency Award. As strong as the two earlier, related works were, Reeves' new film is an overwhelmingly powerful achievement on a truly epic scale. It is now clear that Reeves was trying out techniques in the earlier films in order to perform them with complete mastery in When It Was Blue. The film is a benediction for two things threatened with extinction that Reeves holds dear: the natural world and 16mm film. The double projections weave together dense layers of ecological imagery that Reeves shot around the globe (including Canada, Costa Rica, Iceland, New Zealand, and the US) with abstract hand-painted textural elements. Among a myriad of themes, visuals, and ideas, the film riffs on various meanings of the world “blue,” from the ocean to the state of mind. The film's structure elegantly cycles through the four seasons and the four points of the compass. The resulting film, created out of a sense of sincere need, transcends the beautiful to tap into deep, resonant emotions in the viewer. There's so much to say to this film, but above all else, it should be experienced firsthand. Now for the good news and the bad news. Bad news first: Reeves is only going to be able to “perform” this film a few times in 2009. Good news: We're hoping to be able to bring her back to the Wexner Center in May for one of those select performances.

Che (Steven Soderbergh)
This folly from Steven Soderbergh has been the subject of much discussion since its premiere at the Cannes film festival. And rightly so. Much of the discussion has centered around whether or not the film will ever get released in America; days after I saw the film it got picked up by IFC Films for a release this winter. It's a $65 million film about Che Guevara starring Benicio Del Toro that is divided into two sections: the first chronicling the fulfillment of the Cuban revolution that Guevara led with Fidel Castro, the second chronicling the failed (and fatal) attempt to pull off a similar revolution in Bolivia. I saw the film in a single four hour viewing (plus an intermission) but when the film comes to Columbus in early 2009, it will probably be divided into two films, the first called The Argentine and the second called The Guerilla. The film itself is something of a chore to sit through. It presents the process of executing a revolutionary movement in a flat, clinical style, without the editorial or problematized stance that you might expect with such subject matter. There is not much “poetry” in this film. However, even though the experience of watching the film provided little pleasure, I find myself thinking back on it fondly. The inversely mirrored halves provide a hefty conceptual ballast. There's talk about perhaps cutting the film down into one shorter film and while doing this would probably make the film easier to watch, it would also rob the film of it strongest aspects. And to only watch one of the two “halves” would result in not understanding the film in the slightest (although The Guerilla is unquestionably the stronger of the two parts). (One thing that I've never heard anyone mention is that each “half” is in a different aspect ratio. The Argentine in Scope and The Guerilla is in 1.85:1. Perhaps Soderbergh did this to ensure that the two parts of the film could not be hacked up and mixed together in a way that destroys the separateness of each section.) There is a small minority of very astute critics such a J. Hoberman that are really championing the film, comparing it to Rossellini's historical films or the radical documents of Peter Watkins. But this could be a case of a reviewer filling out the flatness of the film with their own intelligence. I'm not certain that the film is quite as smart as its defenders claim; in a way, these people are writing about the Che they would like to see, not the Che that unfurls on the screen. But regardless, the film is one of the most perplexing follies to come along in some time (it's probably the least commercial – and most expensive – film that I saw at the festival) and a film that any dedicated filmgoer or political historian will want to have an opinion on.

The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky)
If you haven't heard of The Wrestler yet, you surely will by the end of the year. It's sure to be a hit with audiences and critics and a contender for several Oscars, the foremost one being a guaranteed Best Actor nomination for Mickey Rourke. He plays the title character and it's not only his comeback role (the ensemble part in Sin City paved the way for this lead role), but the role he'll be remembered for. But none of this is to say that I particularly like this film. Rourke plays an aging, professional wrestler whose 1980s glory days are long past and the film never deviates an inch from the parameters of its very limited genre. Ultimately, the film feels like an active combatant in the culture wars; it's a film that forces you to take sides. The “war” comes down to Bret Michaels vs. Kurt Cobain. While I'm sure many people would choose to opt out of that conflict altogether, I'm on Team Cobain and the film felt downright hostile. Remember that endless parade of power ballads that dominated the 1980s, the ones that tried to show that these “tough” rockers have a sensitive side? The Wrestler is kind of the filmic equivalent of that, with some Captain Lou Albano kitsch thrown in for more disreputable lowbrow pop culture street cred. You may be through with the 80s, but the 80s aren't through with you. The film is an entertaining enough diversion and gets its milieus right despite surrounding them with clichés, but oversized claims are being made for it already. (Its grand prize win at the Venice Film Festival is completely mystifying – especially when Rachel Getting Married was in competition.) Ultimately, The Wrestler feels like Oscar bait for meatheads.

Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas)
Coming on the heels of Assayas' skuzzy techno-romps demonlover and Boarding Gate, his latest, Summer Hours, feels like a solid, tightly focused return to the relative gentility of his earlier films Late August, Early September or Les Destinées Sentimentales for most of its length. The film opens with a reunion of a scattered family who have come together to celebrate the matriarch's birthday (Eyes without a Face's Edith Scob plays the mother; Juliette Binoche, Charles Berling, and Jérémie Renier play her children). Much of the conversation centers around what will happen to the family's art collection (an uncle was a painter of some renown) once their mother dies. The film then goes on to explore the ideas surrounding ownership of art objects, estate, and legacy in such depth that it has as much to say about the subject as documentaries such as The Rape of Europa. But by film's end, Assayas questions established values and closes the narrative by heading into complicated tonal and thematic territory. This placid drama of the bourgeoisie ultimately becomes unsettling and maybe even a little bit profound.

-Chris Stults, Assistant Curator, Film/Video