By twhalliii | THE BACK ROW MANIFESTO by Tom Hall September 19, 2006 at 9:13AM
After writing some long posts in the last week, I thought I should cover some of the other films and experiences I've enjoyed at this year's Toronto Film Festival. As I have said many times before, when you see six films a day for nine days, things get a little wacked out; people begin shouting at the screen, the movies begin to talk to one another and the whole experience becomes singular, unified. Toronto was a tremendous festival, and despite some complaints by my fellow colleagues that this was an 'off-year', I found plenty of films I have loved (and I didn't see most of the most highly regarded titles as I will be catching them next week at the New York Film Festival.) I always say this, but it bears repeating; One of the great joys of my job is being able to watch films with an open heart and mind. I have no commercial interest or critical reputation to uphold, I simply watch to see if I can connect to a film and if an audience might be able to do the same. I don't know where that lands me in terms of responsibility, but all I know is that I have really enjoyed most of the films in Toronto. While I always fail in my attempts to honor the spirit of brevity (my time in Canada is over, NYFF press screenings begin tomorrow), my thoughts on a wonderful Toronto...
Fay Grim by Hal Hartley
If Fay Grim, Hal Hartley's global conspiracy-draped follow up to his classic Henry Fool, proves anything, it is that the future of digital cinema follows the same path that cinema has always taken; A good script, fine actors, and a talented Director working in perfect concert will make a good movie, regardless of what camera is used to capture the images. Day-and-date multi-platform releasing, VOD windows, on-line film downloads, editing suites being pared down to a single laptop; who cares? If there is one thing that most of the people cutting the edge of 'new cinematic business models' may be overlooking (or maybe not), its that the projects they are choosing (mostly independent, low-cost/low-risk movies) are exactly the ones that will continue to excite the human beings who want to sit in movie theaters. Fair play to the good folks at HDNet films for packaging up multiple platforms and trying to get their films seen by as many people as possible, but until the day when movie downloading and TV playback is simple, fast, foolproof and very, very cheap, I will refrain from getting too excited about any of it. I mean, how much revenue did Soderbergh's wonderful Bubble bring in? Then again, maybe the lesson has been learned and these companies understand human behavior far better than I do. It's enough to make one schizophrenic!
I guess the reason I bring this up, in this context, is that it seems surprising to me that Hartley's low budget, shot on HD, edited on Final Cut Pro, released in the coming months by the HDNet films/Magnolia/Landmark troika, etc etc. film is getting less press for its terrifc story than it was for its embrace of digital-age cinematic tools (and possible release strategies). At the end of the day, kudos go to everyone involved for bringing this tremendously fun, wildly energetic film to audiences. The film tells us the story of Fay Grim (Parker Posey), sister of poet Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), and her discovery that her former lover Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan), long thought dead, is actually alive. Of course, this revelation is not without its complications, which involve the CIA, terrorism and a delightfully non-sensical (yet perfectly plausible) chain of conspiracies, codes and entanglements that make up a hilarious distillation of our complicated times. Think Chaplin's Modern Problems blended with Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much set in the age of global terrorist 'chatter', and you have a start.
Rescue Dawn by Werner Herzog
Rescure Dawn, Werner Herzog's fictionalized re-telling of his non-fiction Littlke Dieter Needs To Fly, may be his most accessible film for American audiences and will, I think, become his most sucessful film on these shores, but I already heard the backlash starting when I walked out of the press screening. "That was Herzog?" said one attendee to a friend. "America is going to eat that up," said another. To those who watched Rescue Dawn and saw something that doesn't fit in perfectly with Werner's long-established theme of man battling against the violence of the natural world, well, I would argue that either you don't know Herzog or you don't understand the accessibility of Little Dieter in the first place. This film will find an audience in America, I think, precisely because it finds personal triumph in a relative defeat while showing us a terrifying fight for survival (a note-perfect re-telling of Dieter Dengler's personal narrative).
I can understand how this film could be misread by those eager to graft political interpretation onto the film's P.O.W.-in-Laos story (either as vindication of American soliders or an equivoication with something like Abu Ghraib), but I think Werner would want to choke anyone who tried to dabble in metaphor when talking about Rescue Dawn. What the film is about is a pilot who, once being shot down on a secret mission in Laos, is held in a P.O.W. camp before engineering an escape and being plunged into a jungle which holds him in an equally terrifying captivity. Proof that Herzog's message should not be misinterpreted as some sort of triumphalism? In the film's final moment, when Dieter (Christian Bale, who seems to be almost chanelling Dengler) is returned to his comrades on-board his Navy vessel, he is asked if he has any advice for the soliders who take inspiration from his survival. "Scratch what itches, " he says. If I have ever heard more Herzogian advice in my life, I couldn't identify it. There is no irony, no metaphor in Rescue Dawn. It is simply an amazing adventure, well told, with great perfromances all the way around (Steve Zahn shines, and if Jeremy Davies doesn't get the lead in a Helter Skelter remake after this, no one deserves it). I am interested to see how the world inevitably heaps its own bullshit onto Herzog's movie, but if anyone can overcome it, it is Werner.
Men Against Nature: Steve Zahn and Christian Bale in Werner Herzog's Rescue Dawn
Strike by Volker Schlöndorff
I haven't heard much from others about Volker Schlöndorff's Strike, and I am surprised as it was one of the highlights of the festival for me. Detailing the working conditions that lead to the rise of the Solidarity movement in the shipyards of Danzig/Gdansk, Poland, Strike is primarily the story of the plucky, hard-working Agnieszka Kowalska (an amazing and vital performance by Katharina Thalbach), an illiterate shipyard welder who is also the pride of the labor union. After terrible working conditions, mutiple acts of deception and corruption by Union officials all lead to a tragic accident at the worksite, Agnieszka agitates the party officals and is fired, leading her fellow workers (including Lech Walesa, played with intensity by Andrzej Chyra) to begin to organize against the state controlled labor officials and bring the famous Solidarity movement into the world. I don't know whether the film's tiny critical response so far is a measure of its scheduling during the festival (everyone else was in line to see Borat, sigh...) or if the film's dedication to industrial labor relations and politics is simply unattractive to many in our global corporate age. but for me, the film couldn't be more timely. As corporations chase cheap, unorganized labor around the globe is search of low costs and the highest stockholder returns, Strike was a refreshing and hopeful reminder of battles fought and won. The film itself, which reminded me of what might happen if you took Eisenstein's Strike, mixed it with Norma Rae and had a Nights of Cabiria-era Giuletta Massina in the role of the plucky working woman, you have an idea of how engaging Strike is.
Monkey Warfare by Reg Harkema
Wow. Seeing the film billed as a Canadian (the film is set in modern-day Toronto) re-telling of Jean-Luc Godard's 1967 classic La Chinoise, I went into Reg Harkema's Monkey Warfare with a load of expectations. You just don't make that comparison in a festival catalogue without inviting skepticism, but I am very happy to say, I enjoyed Monkey Warfare more than I ever dreamed I would. I don't know why that is, and it probably says more about me than the film, but that is a lot of expectation to foist on a modest indie film. But man oh man, does Monkey Warfare transcend. Instead of a re-make or a re-telling of La Chinoise, Monkey Warfare takes the specifc political concerns and cinematic style on display in Godard's film and projects them into the present day, where they take on an almost tragic feeling in the context of today's social conditions.
Linda (Tracy Wright) and Dan (Don McKellar) are bohemian roomates who live below soceity's radar in a rent-controlled house, subsisting on the found objects and antiques they discover and sell on-line. In fact, the pair live so far off the grid, Linda and Dan don't even use e-Bay, but instead have their own on-line business. When their pot dealer gets busted, Dan enlists the services of Susan (Nadia Litz), an impressionable twenty-something in a beret who, like Dan and Linda, rides a bicycle and gets by on day to day living and the pot business. As Dan and Susan grow closer, he becomes a mentor of sorts to the younger girl, educating her in the ways of old school revolutionary idealism; he plays her Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings records, shares his book on the Baader-Meinhof group with her, and lays down his philosophy of living in our dark times.
Fuck The Man: Susan (Nadia Litz) rides her bike in Reg Harkema's Monkey Warfare
The film really picks up when Dan and Susan's relationship is complicated by Linda and the three become something of a family unit wherein Dan and Linda, somehow and someway, shock themselves by discouraging Susan from taking her own revolutionary ideals too far. Instead of becoming a piss-take on the revolutionary ideas and images of the 1960's, Monkey Warfare instead incorporates those images, styles and ideas into what I considered an elegy for left-wing political idealism. The film is at once poignant and very funny precisely because it knows how to use history, both cinematic and political, to show us how much we've changed since Godard threw his cinematic molotov cocktails up on the screen. I saw both positive and negative in those changes, but ultimately, I don't really miss the days of Marx and Coca-Cola; We've got the MTV and the SUV to contend with now. I can't recommend Monkey Warfare enough and, if this movie is not the Opening Night Film of NYC's Bicycle Film Festival, there is something wrong in the world.
No Place Like Home by Perry Henzell
Speaking of classic cinema projecting itself into a present day context, Perry Henzell's No Place Like Home was plucked out of a Jamaican time capsule and shown at this year's Festival. The movie, mostly shot in 1974/75 in Jamaica, is a sort of follow-up to 1972's classic The Harder They Come, but with a Psychosimbiotaxiplasm twist; the film oscialtes between documentary- style footage of a film crew shooting a TV Commercial for shampoo (starring a very young P.J. Soles) and a narrative about a local fixer named Carl (Carl Bradshaw) and his attempt to find P.J. after she flees the set. During production of No Place Like Home, the negative went missing and the film was lost until it was recently found it in a New York City sound studio. Taking the found footage and trying to assemble something from it, we have this version of No Place Like Home.
The film is unfinished and a total narrative mess and Henzell and his team clearly know it and have tried to fix things by inserting shots and bits of dialogue from the present day (shot on digital video) and matching it to the dirty, griitty film stock and story from the 1970's. Even still, with the impossible to follow story, the gratuitous slow-mo shots and the unresolved plot, the film must be seen if only for the first twenty minutes and later, for Carl's journey home. In the opening sequence, the film crew attempt to shoot the shampoo commercial with an incorrigable P.J. Soles, who not only sings the comerical's music ('We all live in a world of beauty/ the sun shining every day'-- hilarious) but complains about every take, camera angle and even on-set sound. It is a jaw-dropping document of the early 1970's commercial culture and the 'making of' style that Henzell employs makes me wonder what was real and what was staged; it is pretty astonishing to walk into a cinema in 2006 and see fotoage like this. Carl's journey to find P.J. Soles, who has fled the set in order to experience Jamaica (we never see her again) is also well worth seeing and includes a brief, unfinished rendez-vous with a young Grace Jones (who is stunning) and the beginnings of a revolution against the authorities who are shutting down local businesses in order to sell-off beach-front property to wealthy foreigners (we all know how that one ended), but again, most of these scenes are mere fragments. I got a clear sense that, had Henzell not lost the negative and been able to complete these stories (and had he not fallen back on Bob Marley classics and instead used more timely, less popular music on the soundtrack) at the time, he would have had a worthy follow-up to The Harder They Come. As it stands, No Place Like Home is a series of beautiful antique fragments clumsily stiched together with modern threads. I can understand the impulse to try and salvage what was clearly an amazing project, and a film festival is the perfect place to show the footage, but I suspect this movie will see other incarnations in the future.
D.O.A. at the American Hardcore Party
Yes, there were several industry folk at the American Hardcore party at Toronto's legendary Horseshoe, but I am not sure how many folks were on the floor with me when the mighty D.O.A. took the stage around 12:30am on Wednesday night. The band have still got it; I think Joey may be the only original member left in the group, but they still fucked it up, playing classic D.O.A. as well as some choice covers, like The Germs' Fuck You and fellow Canadians The Dickies classic I Don't Give A Shit. It was great to be in the middle of a busy Film Festival and be able to crash around the front of the stage like a ridiculous sixteen-year-old again. Sigh. Maybe next year we can get a Dayglo Abortions show? ha! Thanks to the American Hardcore folks for the event... I missed Flipper's opening set (tragic!), but D.O.A. made my day.
Regrets and Thanks!
My two main cinematic regrets at the festival were missing This is England by Shane Meadows (which someone else on my staff covered) and The Lives of Others by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, which will be released by the time my festival rolls around, but which I was dying to see (but unfortunately, due to a scheduling conflict, could not). Otherwise, I did pretty well.
It was a lot of fun to get back in the cinematic swing of things and I'm looking forward to writing some in-depth reviews of the New York Film Festival in the coming weeks. Thanks to Jared Moshe, Matt Dentler, Paul Rachman, Josh Braun and everyone else for the party invitations; I really appreciate it! Thanks also to the staff, filmmakers and volunteers at Toronto for delivering a top notch event. I look forward to seeing you all again next year!