Toronto International Film Festival 2014: Wavelengths
By Nick Pinkerton
The Toronto International Film Festival, like most events of such gargantuan proportions, is carved up into a series of small, manageable fiefdoms and kingdoms that tend to their own affairs—it’s like Italy before Garibaldi, or the Holy Roman Empire. Because it’s impossible to see everything at the fest, you pick your bailiwick and stick to it, crossing paths with those on other beats as, say, a Savoyan traveling trade routes might bump into someone from the Kingdom of Sardinia.
Because the phrase “Oscar noms” makes me want to rest my weary head in the nearest oven, I spent a healthy portion of my time at TIFF in the Kingdom of Wavelengths, amid films facing no threat of further laurels. Per the copy on the festival’s website, Wavelengths is devoted to screening films from “[d]aring, visionary and autonomous voices… that expand our notions of cinema.” Broadly, this means favoring the experimental and the ornery, films with uncooperative narratives or none at all. Strictly avant-garde before it merged with the Visions section in 2012, Wavelengths gives little or no priority to premiere status, and for many Torontonians, as well as North American critics without the budget to travel to major European festivals, it’s the biggest bastion of hard art cinema that exists on these shores. Within its manifest, the program has room to accommodate something like Shinya Tsukamoto’s Fires on the Plain, the Tetsuo director’s handheld rendition of the Shohei Ooka novel of the same name definitively filmed by Kon Ichikawa in 1959, or Josh and Benny Safdie’s Heaven Knows What, which follows a few days in a few lives of some heroin users flopping and nodding in the precincts of Central Park in New York’s Upper West Side.
I will be writing on Heaven Knows What at length for this masthead soon, so I will content myself with saying here that it is a beautiful film. Because it renders an ugly situation in beautiful images, it can and undoubtedly will be charged with aestheticizing poverty—the same accusation that has dogged Pedro Costa since his 1988 debut O Sangue. Like the Safdies’ film, which is based on an unpublished memoir by star Arielle Holmes, Costa’s works are made in close collaboration with his subjects: frequently, immigrants from the former Portuguese colonies in the Cape Verdean islands. Costa’s latest, Horse Money, included in the Wavelengths slate, finds him working again with Ventura, the elderly, gaunt star of Colossal Youth and Costa’s recent shorts. Ventura, shaken by an incessant tremor, has been confined to hospital care after some manner of workplace accident. He comes and goes freely between the corridors of this modern institution and the stone passages of a stygian dungeon, which may or may not be the prison that he was confined to after a knife fight as a younger man. A woman named Vitalina appears, speaking in a sibilant hush. After a dehumanizing trip to Portugal, she has arrived for her husband’s funeral. Ventura insists he just saw her dead husband the other day, and there is a hint of desperation to this insistence—“If he is dead, might I be dead as well?”
In Horse Money, a film of spelean spaces and furry digital chiaroscuro, past and present melt into one another, while there’s no question of future. The movie is populated by half-ghosts and restless reminders of unquiet history—workers haunting the spaces that they’ve known for all their lives, drifting through a long out-of-business factory and waiting on a paycheck twenty years later; statues to revolutionary heroes that speak and that can’t stay in position. It’s a stubbornly hermetic, disquieting work: “We’ll keep falling from the third floor,” a friend tells the bedridden Ventura, cementing the idea of poverty as a historical constant that’s also attested to by an opening montage of Jacob Riis’s photographs taken in the slums of late 19th century New York. Still more indelible is the image of Ventura standing in an intersection in an unidentified city at night, unarmed and naked save for a pair of shocking red briefs, hemmed in by a tank and troopers in paramilitary garb—an image made without knowledge of Ferguson, Missouri (which was fresh in in the minds of many viewers at TIFF), but which showed a comprehension of the whole of history that had led to it.
I don’t know offhand what the population of Portugal is, but I know not terribly many people live there, and so by my estimate something like one in twenty Portuguese is a very great or at least very interesting film director. This fecundity was acknowledged by a program titled “Pimenta/ de Oliveira/ Abrantes,” which combined three films around the half-hour mark by filmmakers with those surnames working in Portugal. The centerpiece was Manoel de Oliveira’s The Old Man of Belem, in which the pillars of Iberian literature—Miguel de Cervantes, Camilo Castelo Branco, Teixeira de Pascoaes, and Luís Vaz de Camões—convene to palaver around a park bench. It was touching, as at this point any film by the centenarian de Oliveira must inevitably be, though dense with allusion, not offering itself up so freely as his fable-like recent works. The 16th-century poet Camões also appears in Taprobana by Gabriel Abrantes, who appears as a weedy government agent spying on Camões and his Chinese lover, Dinamene, during their exile in the titular island, the present-day Sri Lanka. Abrantes’s treatment of this national hero may strike some as excessively flippant, if not a work of outright character assassination—the film includes a swishy King Filipe II of Spain, as well the immediate aftermath of Camões having shat in the face of his lady love in an intimate moment (at her request, I hasten to add.) At the same TIFF, however, I’d seen Peter Strickland’s too-cute-by-half S&M comedy The Duke of Burgundy and Jason Reitman’s Men, Women, and Children, outright hateful towards any and all non-normative sex acts, and so I was tickled to encounter a filmmaker who seemed to take unabashed glee in kink, and a fraternal delight in the company of freaks. Abrantes is apparently at work on his first feature, and here’s hoping it’s an explosive shart in the face of the smug and the cautiously discreet.
Born and educated in the United States, Abrantes is a willing émigré—like another Wavelengths standout, Eugène Green, born in New York City but a Frenchman since 1976. Both filmmakers engage with European cultural heritage through a skewed perspective available only through a degree of remove: irreverently in the case of Abrantes, reverently in the case of Green. When last we heard of the peripatetic Green, he was also writing in the language of Camões. Lisbon was the setting of Green’s 2009 The Portuguese Nun, in which he plays the film-within-a-film’s director. Green appears onscreen briefly in his latest, La Sapienza, as well, playing an Aramaic-speaking Chaldean immigrant driven out of his native Iraq. I have seen Green in person before, and there is nothing particularly remarkable about his appearance, but on-screen he is strikingly handsome. In fact, everyone in his film at one point or another assumes a kind of lit-from-within luminosity, something which a viewer has ample opportunity to observe. The tactic that Green has developed for shooting dialogue scenes is to film the speakers facing one another—and, in shot-reverse shot, facing the camera and thus the audience—dead-on, face forward. The result is a consistent tone of direct, rather urgent tenderness; one feels that one is being taken firmly in hand and being told that This, This Is Important, and never so much so as when Green’s craning camera leads the eye on a guided tour up and along the details of some of the masterpieces of Italian Baroque architecture. (I sat in the front row for my screening, and never has that obeisant and overwhelmed position seemed more perfect.)
Alexandre (Fabrizio Rongione), an established architect who has been working in the International style, travels with his wife, Aliénor (Green regular Christelle Prot) to Bissone, Switzerland, birthplace of Francesco Borromini, hoping to reinvigorate his practice through close study of the Baroque master’s work. There they befriend a brother and sister duo—aspiring architect Goffredo (Ludovico Succio), who believes in architecture as a force to facilitate an integrated, nurturing, spiritual lifestyle, and his sister, Lavinia (Arianna Nastro), who he hesitates to leave should her fainting spells worsen. Aliénor agrees to stay with Lavinia, and Alexandre and Goffredo set off into Italy on the trail of Borromini, who “appears” in the film’s most perfect set piece, his suicide after a sleepless night reenacted as a network of fragmentary images—the wispy flame of an oil lamp, the hilt of the fatal sword balanced against the bed. Green’s strictly pre-Enlightenment sensibility may threaten to render him an absurd figure, but the plainspoken way that he addresses aloneness, depression, and long dark nights of the soul—and the importance of human and artistic commiseration, which are really the same thing, in getting through all of the above—seems to me an act of great artistic heroism.
Essential to the Wavelengths experience are the several programs of short films shown at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall—also the home of Toronto’s experimental/ avant-garde Images Festival, and a charmingly dowdy setting for some truly exotic fare. The only complaint I can make about the first film in the first shorts program, Montréal-based Alexandre Larose’s brouillard - passage #14, is that it sets the bar rather high for everything that came afterwards. The ten-minute film consists of a number of images of the same single-take stroll superimposed atop one another. We proceed along a cleared path in the woods of Quebec, the overlapping foliage on either side seeming to sway like underwater kelp. A flock of little girls in red—or is it just one little girl?—scamper past and down the lane, beyond our sightline. Finally, we arrive on the edge of a lake at a small dock, which the camera proceeds down before tumbling headlong into the water, an abrupt splash that snaps the hypnotic spell. The program, titled “Open Forms,” was neatly bookended by Larose’s film at the front end and, at the close, a trio of T. Marie’s Panchromes—transmutable pixel paintings whose shifting colors spread across the canvas for an effect that can seem like an effulgent shimmer or an infectious rash—which ended the program. In a later shorts program, I was gobsmacked by Chicagoan Calum Walter’s Relief, composed of images from the scene of a car accident rendered in the streaky grey-and-white of multigenerational photocopying, their decay animated through a process that I cannot claim to understand, but which bristles with glum foreboding.
As I began this reportage with a torturous city-states metaphor, it seems only appropriate to end it by discussing Letters to Max, a communiqué from a country far, far smaller and more marginal than little Portugal—a country that, in fact, is scarcely acknowledged as a country at all. This is Abkhazia, a partially recognized state in the Caucasus bordered by the Black Sea to the west, Russia to the north, and, to the southeast, Georgia, from which it acrimoniously broke away from after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and a 1992-93 war. The film’s visual component is comprised of views from the nation-that-is-not filmed by director/cinematographer Eric Baudelaire, the opening images of rusted-out husks of dead tanks in a summer thunderstorm establishing the pervasive air of dilapidation and disuse, as well as giving a glimpse of the still-fresh scars of a violent national severance. The soundtrack element is an epistolary exchange—Baudelaire reads the short, obliquely questioning letters that he addressed to Maxim Gvinjia, the former Foreign Minister and “diplomat for a country that is not recognized,” and Gvinjia recites his own long and thoughtful replies. (Gvinjia also appears on-screen, in domestic scenes as well as in footage of a rare state visit to Venezuela.) The reason for Abkhazia’s status as an international pariah—its ethnic cleansing of the Georgian population during the war—is the structuring absence of their conversation, but Baudelaire doesn’t want to condemn or redeem Abkhazia so much as explore the peculiar liminal status of an unrecognized nation. In a program that’s filled with exiles, voluntary and otherwise, Abkhazia’s almost-but-not-quite plight stands out as especially poignant.