Toronto Journal 1: Climates, etc.
I’m quickly realizing that a great highlight of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival is the chance to meet up and hang out with more filmbloggers than you could shake a stick at. So far I've had a chance to see: Doug Cummings of Film Journey; Rob Davis of Errata; Michael Guillen of The Evening Class; Darren Hughes of Long Pauses; Russell Lucas of Attorney/Wastrel; Ken Morefield of All Things Ken; Jason Morehead of Opus; J. Robert Parks of Framing Device; and Michael S. Smith of Culturespace. It’s like a filmbloggers convention over here, and we've been convening in restaurants, subway trains, and sidewalk ticket lines.
Ten of us shared a communal Ethiopian meal the other night at a restaurant off Yonge Street. And when I say communal, I mean it literally—no individual plates, but instead large circular pancakes the size of a small coffee table, shared by all.
Climates, the fourth and latest film by Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, was a solid kick-off to the fest. I’ve seen and enjoyed Ceylan’s first three features, The Small Town (1998), Clouds Of May (2000), and Distant (2003), especially the last. In Climates, a man breaks up with his girlfriend but can’t shake her from his mind; he’s an architecture prof unmotivated to finish up his thesis and she’s an art director working in television.
Because Ceylan himself plays the man and his wife Ebru plays the woman, it’s easy to imagine this film, sight unseen, as a cathartic Bergmanesque exercise in relationship-autobiography. But instead the movie is more distanced and observational, pulling away from (specific) character psychology and heading instead towards evoking a (universal) free-floating existential malaise and alienation reminiscent of Antonioni. The universal quality is underlined by the film’s three-act structure—summer, fall and winter—which echoes the film’s title.
Ceylan’s lead characters, both here and in Distant, are photographers, and the best thing about this movie is its impressive visual sense. There’s a pair of love scenes—one of them is animalistic, rough and funny; and the other is wispy, oblique and mystical—that is a little tour de force in contrasts. And it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a film that dwells long and patiently on faces; the story of this film is written not in dialogue and not even as much in its mise-en-scene as on these faces. The image above is the long-held opening shot of the film.
In the Romanian film 12:08 East Of Bucharest, by Corneliu Porumboiu, we see a TV talk show in real time shot from a single fixed camera position for nearly forty-five minutes. The host has rounded up two guests, a history teacher and an elderly villager, to recall the end of Communism in Romania, which occurred when the Ceausescu regime fell at 12:08 pm on December 22, 1989 (thus the film’s title).
The two guests on the talk show relate their accounts of that fateful day but then the phones start ringing and callers begin to flagrantly contradict these accounts. By film’s end, we are left hopelessly confused—in a good way—about that day of revolution, wondering if there was a revolution, the meaning of that historical moment destabilized by faulty memories colored by personal emotion, age, or even plain old alcohol. While much of the film is played as amusing but unexceptional comedy, it is these slightly unsettling (and unanswered) questions about history, time and memory that linger in the mind afterwards.
If someone wants to mount a defense of Aki Kaurismäki's Lights In The Dusk and shed light on the film—open it up for me—I can tell you that I will be eagerly suggestible. As a Kaurismäki fan, I want so badly to get and like this new film. But from what I have to go on so far, it's frustrating.
The good news first: Many of the familiar and well-loved Kaurismäkian touches are quietly on display. The tone is deadpan but with a light romantic tug; the mise-en-scene is precise and droll; the cutting is crisp; there is his usual deep affection for the socioeconomically discarded and disefranchised. Also present is his typically unerring use of music, everything from opera to rock n'roll, including a rock band performing a tune in its entirety (I always like this about Kaurismäki), the intruments recorded live, played by the performers themselves, not dubbed in the studio.
But the story, of a security guard ensnared in a film noir heist plot, is treated in a bafflingly abstract, spare and diagrammatic manner. The film's main purpose is to check off all the points that form the character's grindingly inexorable downward trajectory. What's missing is the plethora of little character touches that made the previous films of this loose trilogy (Drifting Clouds, The Man Without A Past) so poignant and complex in their affect. Is this a Kaurismäki lab experiment in draining the narrative of the 'false complexities' of a pseudo-manipulative, traditional 'humanistic' character-driven narrative? Is Kaurismäki trying to prove some narrative theorem? Is this an essay film about narrative? As you can tell, I'm dying to give him the benefit of the doubt, but so far...I got nothin'.
Still, it's like seeing an old and dear friend you see every two years or so—as we do with so many contemporary filmmakers we cherish—only to discover that he's turned up for the lunch date hung over, in a laconic and slightly foul mood, not willing to say much; but it feels good to see him anyway. You shake hands afterwards and hope that at your next reunion, two years later, he'll be better and slightly more scrutable company.