The Festival Beneath the Festival: Selections from Toronto International Film Festival 2017by Phil Coldiron
“It’s been a bad year.” I suppose that this refrain heard around Toronto means—as it did in Berlin and Cannes—that the films intended to catch the official mood of a culture, its “radical center,” seem to have failed against the state of the world or the history of the art. If you like, they’ve failed at becoming the state of the art—just as the junk they exist to justify flopped at the box office this summer. I must confess, I didn’t see many of these apparent failures. The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), even in this year’s freshly pruned edition, hosts perhaps five times more films than the most hyped up cine-hound might consume. So what follows is a tour through some of the work, nearly all of it curated by Andréa Picard in her Wavelengths section, which made it plain that, when it comes to art at least, a year’s only ever as bad as you allow it to be.
My festival began with Kazik Radwanski’s short Scaffold, a set of gently tight frames—like well-worn work pants, or a shot by Bresson—focused on a pair of immigrant handymen laboring in Toronto. Its mid century-style isolation of gesture preceded Denis Côté’s feature Ta peau si lisse, which itself channels an earlier conception of the moving image. An arthouse ASMR video cobbled from heavy breaths, a dash of energy healing, and the tender sweeps of Côté’s camera over monstrously bulked flesh, this portrait of a half dozen Quebecois bodybuilders revives the thrilled gaze of the earliest actualities, the “cinema of attractions”—and here I’m not speculating: early-cinema images of strongmen play alongside the credits. This might not be more than a look, a mood, oddly relaxed given the bodily exertion it’s built of, but its pastoral coda, which gathers this pack of beefcakes and sends them camping (wives and girlfriends left behind), puns toward the erotics Côté’s got an eye on: the mechanics of being turned on by such sculpted cartoons of masculinity.
Benjamin Crotty likes muscles well enough, but he loves a man in and out of uniform, so he’s swiped seven short vignettes shot on 16mm by American soldiers in downtime during the Vietnam War—splashing in a river, taking communion, reading Christmas cards, and, as noted by its deadpan title, moving between locations via land, air, and sea—for Division Movement to Vungtau. Crotty and his co-director Bertrand Dezoteux intervene on this material by dubbing in a soundtrack, naturalistic in content, artificial in tone; applying the occasional iris to open or close a scene; and, most pointedly, sticking huge anthropomorphic CGI fruit into every shot, which sway and dance and giggle and chirp like they’re hopped up on their own sugar. In four minutes, the pair throw stink bombs into not only the boomer nostalgia that marks Vietnam as more than just another catastrophe in our idiot nation’s storied history of them, but also the micro and macro of the pathos-sodden tradition of the diary film and the ever expanding importance of the visual to America’s ongoing imperial follies (i.e., like so many drone coordinates, the soft celluloid impressions of “the first TV war” have been scanned into precisely quantified data available for CG mapping). It’s at least as punk as Crossroads.
A pair of gorgeous soldiers wander to “In C” through Jorge Jácome’s lavender sci-fi, Flores, in which the Azores have grown lousy with imported hydrangeas gone invasive. Jácome loves the color of these flowers so much that their hues inflect every frame; the result is moment to moment the most ravishing work the festival had to offer. As the soldiers recount a litany of the departed, those who have left these islands drowning in beauty for calmer lives back on the continent, there’s a whiff of allegorical implication, a light scent that might pair nicely with the heavier perfume of Neïl Beloufa’s Occidental, in which desire—embodied by Paul Hamy in a coat that’s just to die for—is as pervasive as the hydrangeas, uprooting each narrative it encounters. A trio of police show up trying to make sense of this delightfully faux mess, only to find themselves blown about like the rest amidst the street fighting outside the titular hotel’s windows. Meanwhile and elsewhere, cops and soldiers are seen from a distance, spatial or temporal, in Sky Hopinka’s report from Standing Rock, Dislocation Blues, and are displaced into the architecture and environments of Fern Silva’s panoptical The Watchmen.
Depending on which angle you view it from, the ground of Michael Robinson’s prismatic Onwards Lossless Follows is an inversion of the carceral vision Silva diligently tracks: the camera mediates between a subject and the world it isn’t ready for, gazing longingly out a suburban window at a shirtless guy with bad posture and a gut as he mows the lawn. Move a little to the left and the ground shifts, as Robinson leaves the bedroom through a matched pair of pitched-down “stranger danger” PSAs, in which the ominously named Mrs. Smith courts androgynous little Karmi, both of whom prove to be ideas as happy to live in language, where they finally come together, or in the cool shades of a karaoke Lana Del Rey, the true blue sound of their love, as in these odd remnants of a time when Americans preferred to localize their moral panic. They do get a happy ending, riding off into abstraction on a horse with no name. Considerably more concrete, and considerably less concerned with America’s conservative morality, is Dani Leventhal and Sheilah Wilson’s Strangely Ordinary This Devotion, which goes even further than Crotty and Dezoteux in goosing any old ideas of the filmed diary. The question is no longer whether it’s ethical to include this or that footage—the directors are partners, and the film is a portrait of their life together, as artists and lovers and parents—but whether, let’s say, you would be willing to let someone slice your head open with a scalpel because the resulting shot would hold enormous thematic resonance. (Here, as far as I can tell, their answer is yes.) It’s an intensely open film of private ritual and wonder, the only work in these ten days where I felt I had to jury-rig an entire receptive framework on the fly to even begin to account for the work it was doing. It’s stuck with me like a rock in my mouth.
Valeska Grisebach’s Western is disarming in the opposite direction: she’s so thoroughly metabolized the conventions of the Western that watching it is like watching someone work directly on the form of myth itself, a form that settles in the miraculous and familiar face of Meinhard Neumann. Genre here becomes a kind of ritual, one aimed at concentrating the dynamics of Germany’s current global position into an immediately legible shape. Ritual plays a similar role in the first third of Narimane Mari’s triptych, Le fort des fous, where the theatrical re-presentation of scenes from Algeria’s colonial years is both a purgative and reminder. The following two-thirds attempt to pin down the dynamics of colonialism today through an allusive outline of a failed utopia and a report on the troubles in Greece; its aggressively transparent journalistic style (complete with an on-screen translator) points outside its frame, perhaps in the direction of Germany...
It seems inevitable, given the recent resurgence of populist energy across the West, that the next few years will see a wave of films dealing squarely with questions of nationalism and identity. Such inquiry already sits at the heart of three of this year’s most eccentric features. Bruno Dumont’s rambunctious Jeannette, the Childhood of Joan of Arc puts France’s favorite saint, and one of cinema’s favorite stories, into the context of a musical, filmed live and on location, in which the demands of the performances are beyond the abilities of the actors. This is not to say that Jeannette is simply a film about failure, but rather one about the tension between the land’s natural beauty, the inadequacy of attempts to sing it fully, and Dumont’s own view, which often sits rather humorously right in Jeannette’s line of sight: we might reasonably assume that her eyes are always on God. Is French cinema what Jeanne was, in the end, always fighting for? The notion that an art might justify its nation, or at least give it a form in the face of apparent incoherence, crops up in the festival’s two diaries of country Protestants, Nelson Carlos de los Santos Arias’s Cocote—a mix of ethnography and melodrama rhyming the mixed populace of the Dominican Republic while each of its levels deal with local, material concerns—and Paul Schrader’s First Reformed—which cools its fury at America’s unholy union of faith and commerce with aesthetics imported from the canons of art cinema, holding it in check until the film’s climax, which is an all-American scream of Christian kitsch.
Schrader’s priest-protagonist, Ernst Toller, asserts at one point that there is no hope without despair, which I suppose is the sort of thing that a priest would be likely to say to a parishioner, reminding him that the world is en route to being completely fucked well within our lifetimes; in any event, it’s a more likely line than one earlier in the film where a woman involved with radical environmentalist action refers to an abortion as “killing my baby.” Mostly, it reminded me of one of the few issues I had with Lucrecia Martel’s Zama: that she didn’t keep the novel’s perfect dedication: “A las victimas de la esperanza.” Martel’s film of Antonio di Benedetto’s astonishing book is, like Michael Haneke’s Happy End, a canny picture of a privileged fantasy of victimhood. Though di Benedetto’s comic figuration of Don Diego de Zama’s miserable psyche—an infernal loop of self-consciousness in which his wild expectations concerning the thoughts of others concerning himself inevitably lead to humiliation, which he handles with reliable wit before it all begins again—is basically unfilmable, Martel has found a variety of clever ways to render its disorienting textures, as mental and physical spaces mingle subtly: Zama’s relationship with the wife of a fellow colonial official, elaborated over a number of scenes in the novel, is here condensed into a pair of visits in which her sitting room, with no apparent physical modulation, nonetheless continues to leave Zama visibly uncertain of where exactly he is, and why exactly he’s there. It’s this sense of self-induced purposeless which leads him to ruin, and it is a similar instinct that drives Haneke’s Georges Laurent into the waves off Calais. In both cases, the hero gets what they want; these are, after all, comedies.
Another of the festival’s best comedies was Pacho Valez and Yoni Brook’s mini Mr. Yellow Sweatshirt. Shooting from high above the entrance to a Jackson Heights subway station, the composition looks like one of Jasper Johns’ cabinet paintings, with the angular abstraction of the station floor topped by the regulatory shape of five turnstiles. Folks bustle across the bottom of the frame, eventually funneling into these openings leading to both the trains and the offscreen unknown. One man, the Mr. Yellow Sweatshirt marked as the protagonist, has an experience any New Yorker knows: his Metrocard won’t read, and he’s stuck. Over the seven minutes in which he tries against reason to swipe his way in, a range of reflections on everything from civic malfunction to personal determination accrue in this steady frame. In her Wasteland no. 1: Ardent, Verdant, Jodie Mack similarly refuses to cede the aerial view entirely to the oppressive uses of the state. Computer processors seen straight on blossom into cartographic information—gridded cities seen from above—as they flicker against richly manipulated digital photos of poppies. The play between the analog fact of a printed piece of paper and the digital circuits that held and manipulated these images swirls into a mental sketch of circulation—of data, of drugs, of knowledge itself.
The design of knowledge figures heavily in the two films I expect to consider the most in the coming months, away from the din of festival noise. In truth, I can already confirm that one of them has been on my mind since the spring: Sara Cwynar’s Rose Gold premiered in New York as the centerpiece of her show in April at Foxy Production. Perhaps better served by the looped space of a gallery than the evanescence of a theatrical screening, this bafflingly dense collage telephones through a manic production of verbal and visual puns on the personal (the work happening in Cwynar’s studio), the generically domestic (her ongoing obsession with knickknacks of all sorts), the national and beyond (our gilded President’s repulsive “I moved on her…” sits adjacent to a consideration of Rembrandt’s non-use of gold paint). While Cwynar digs individual desires out of a corporate commodity, Ephraim Asili’s Fluid Frontiers places the homemade jacket designs of Detroit’s Black radical publishing house, Broadside Press, at the center of frames in which the vernacular power these books contain in their demand and vision for a future is shown to be undiminished.
PHIL COLDIRON is a writer living in Brooklyn.