Toronto: A Few Thoughts
It’s TIFF hangover-slash-exhaustion, I suspect, but after a week of feeling out of sorts and insomnious, life is thankfully returning to normal. What follow are not ‘reviews’ but instead a few thoughts sparked by a few films…
I surprised myself in being bowled over by Lee Chang-dong’s Secret Sunshine. Not that there’s a rule about this or anything but the kind of festival film I’m attracted to generally tends to be short on narrative incident or character psychology and long on formal interest. Secret Sunshine isn’t indifferent to form (at all) but it doesn’t really foreground it either. Instead the film makes a sustained play for your complete, naked, gut-level emotional involvement. I ‘bought’ this film; to me, its relentless descent felt true, uncompromised and necessary. If you didn’t buy it (as was the case with a few friends I spoke to), I can see how the second half might perhaps have felt repetitive or redundant.
The film experiments fruitfully with genre and tone. Genre is used not as a grid which guides and directs movement within the film but instead as a catalyst inserted intermittently to set off events within the narrative. The results and consequences of those events, however, are non-generic. In other words, genre moves pop up, MacGuffin-like, simply to seed the narrative from time to time.
Secret Sunshine reminded me of Todd Haynes’s Safe in a couple of ways: (1) The satire of evangelical Christianity is complicated and nuanced and not at all full-blooded and unambivalent, just as it was with New Age-ism in the Haynes film; and (2) The ‘mirror reflection’ ending both films share. The two stunning performances I saw at the fest this year were by Jeon Do-yeon in this film and Asia Argento in Catherine Breillat's An Old Mistress.
Next: I need to see Lee's Oasis and Peppermint Candy.
So, here’s a question. The two Red Balloon movies: How do they speak to each other? Specifically, the balloon itself: What function does it perform? What does it activate within the narrative?
In Albert Lamorisse’s film (1956), the balloon is always present, visible to all. On the street, people brush past it in annoyance. To them, it’s a pesky outsider, a trespasser. The streetcar refuses to allow it to board; the schoolmaster turns a malign eye on it; it’s ejected from church; the street kids torture it. The balloon’s function in the film is as a public presence—to detail the consequences of its traversal of public spaces.
Hou inverts this function/purpose of the balloon, and renders it private. The balloon is pretty much invisible. Only the boy seems to notice it. The one scene in which it is visible to all is deliberately played in a comic key: its custodian is a man in a green body suit, green because the man can then be easily effaced by the filmmaker’s software.
Except in the first shot of the film, in which the boy climbs up to capture the balloon (a direct quotation of a shot from the original film), he doesn’t even reach out his hand for the balloon; he doesn’t seem to want to possess it. When he spies it through the window, we see little acknowledgment on his face save a mild enchantment (or perhaps I imagined that too). The balloon’s simply there as a private, personal companion for the boy, a hovering object of calm that watches over him from a distance and counterbalances the storm the boy’s mother (Juliette Binoche) weathers daily in numerous small ways.
One has certain private traditions with ritualistic events like film festivals. At my first TIFF in '99 I stumbled into an utterly winning teen movie (Lukas Moodysson’s Fucking Åmål, a.k.a. Show Me Love) and resolved to get a teen movie fix each year at TIFF. This year, I scheduled The Babysitters, with John Leguizamo and Cynthia Nixon, about a suburban prostitution ring of babysitters. But Gus Van Sant's flat-out gorgeous Paranoid Park gave me my fix and then some, and I passed on The Babysitters.
Three interesting things about Paranoid Park:
(1) The sense of dialectical play between the polarities of documentary authenticity (nonprofessional teens; video footage featuring skateboarders who had no ‘dramatic’ parts in the film’s narrative) and an intensely lyricized subjective treatment of everyday activity, often rendered in slow motion.
(2) The witty, complex and multipurpose music scoring, which used a broad range of sources (Nino Rota from Juliet of the Spirits and Amarcord; Billy Swan’s “I Can Help”; Cool Nutz; hardcore; swing-era jazz) to express a variety of attitudes and moods at different points (like pathos, irony, playfulness, burlesque).
(3) Despite its scrambled, doubling-back-on-itself chronology, it never felt like a ‘puzzle film’ that needed to be taken apart and put back together in some linear, ‘natural’ order. Instead of feeling fragmented, it seemed to exist and unfold unhurriedly in a sort of long, continuous, ‘eternal present’.
(Sandrine Marques at Contrechamp posts an arresting pair of images, side by side, from Van Sant and the Renaissance painter Raphael.)
A few links:
-- Shahn at Six Martinis and the Seventh Art offers up a set of framegrabs of film projections within films. Perhaps you'll want to add your own suggestions to her list?
-- Dave Kehr in the NYT on G.W. Pabst's The Threepenny Opera: "Here again is proof of what a fragile medium the movies are, and of how foolish it is for us to condescend to the perceived primitivism of a past that is largely a creation of our own neglect." Also, at his blog, Dave recommends a couple of DVD sources that offer rare films in the public domain.
-- Errol Morris has a blog post at the NYT that has elicited 700+ comments in the last couple of days. It begins: "“You mean to tell me that you went all the way to the Crimea because of one sentence written by Susan Sontag?” My friend Ron Rosenbaum seemed incredulous. I told him, “No, it was actually two sentences.”"
-- Dan Sallitt: "In honor of the upcoming NYC screening of Esther Kahn, here is a list of my ten favorite films whose title consists solely of a woman's full name."
-- David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson's invaluable blog celebrates its first anniversary.
-- Michael Z. Newman at Zigzigger on "White Elephant Television."