In 1995, Susan Sontag summarized the state of cinema at the end of the 20th century by arguing that any films worth admiring “will have to be heroic violations of the norms and practices which govern moviemaking everywhere.” Violations were necessary. The cinematic innovations of the 1960s, particularly those made by European filmmakers, had been plagiarized and “banalized” by filmmakers in the 1970s, and, by the following decade, excessive production costs and the “reimposition of industry standards” had given Hollywood global power. Cinema, more commercial than ever, followed a “policy of bloated, derivative filmmaking, a brazen combinatory or re-combinatory art.” But innovation was not all that was lost; with it, cinephilia, the “distinctive kind of love that cinema inspired,” had waned as well. Members of the vanguard of cinephilia, who had published manifestos and stormed the new releases of visionary directors, had been silenced by an industry that had pushed independent cinema beyond the margins.
If the space for innovative cinema has shrunk over the course of two decades, unconquered territories still remain, perhaps even thrive, in the early twenty-first century. International film festivals allow cinephilia to exist, if to smaller degrees; cinephiles who attend, or at least read about festivals, still debate the achievements of contemporary filmmakers and the current state of cinema. In covering film festivals, the cultural press (albeit a minor portion of it) still gives much-needed attention to promising filmmakers from across the globe.
But festivals do something more. As the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival proved, such events are the major open territory for vanguard cinema of all kinds; even if many of the films do not receive wide distribution (or any) in a place as cinematically influential as the United States, their very appearance at festivals is a significant boon to the medium. The great “conversation” of cinema, involving filmmakers who rework the formal and visual languages of their predecessors and cinephiles and critics who argue about cinema, continues. In the age of the Internet and, in particular, of blogging, important films that may not make it beyond the festival circuit receive not only attention, but also important critical discussion.
Most of all, the Toronto International Film Festival featured, like those in Cannes and Venice, a considerable number of films that bend, manipulate, ignore, or dissolve the uninspired, stifling standards that have governed filmmaking for far too long. The artistic boundaries of these new films are refreshingly elastic, while their international scope runs counter to the unhealthy provincialism that continues to dominate contemporary film culture, especially in the United States.
Far from a minor concern, this provincialism is one of the foremost obstructions to cinematic innovation today. As Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote in the introduction to his recent Essential Cinema:
popularity contests as largely determined—sometimes misleadingly or erroneously—by box-office receipts have constituted the only film canons taken seriously in American culture. And the disinclination of American film academics to offer any alternative canons has continued to give the industry an unchallenged playing field, assisted by such recent promotional campaigns as the American Film Institute’s various polls that list the one hundred greatest American films, stars, comedies, and so on. The restriction of such lists to Hollywood features only begins to describe the promotional aims of promoting particular products coming exclusively from the studios, mainly within the narrow range of what’s already out on the market and readily available.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the American Film Institute, to name but two institutions, give the continual impression that the most essential and artistically important films are American, which by extension means “made in Hollywood.” Even though these are national institutions devoted to domestic film production, their perspectives are nevertheless limited and skewed. Although it’s true that the reach of American film culture certainly knows no bounds—Chinese director Ann Hui’s The Postmodern Life of My Aunt, which screened at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, has the visual language, narrative structure, and emotional musical cues of a standard Hollywood melodrama—the essential and artistically inventive films that screened at this year’s festival came, like Hui’s did, from beyond Hollywood, from places as diverse as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Australia, India, Iceland, the Netherlands, South Korea, and Spain. And for films made within the U.S., the TIFF proved that a spirit of independence exists.
Of course, an independent spirit neither guarantees that the norms and practices governing moviemaking will always be violated nor ensures that all films at the TIFF fulfill their potential. When Julia Loktev’s American debut film, Day Night Day Night screened on a late weekday to a full house, it promised to be something different, if not heroic. The film’s premise of an unnamed young woman (Luisa Williams) planning to explode a suicide bomb in New York’s crowded Times Square certainly resonated with contemporary political and international anxieties. Loktev’s decision to obscure the woman’s ethnic and religious identities and to humanize her by observing her obsessive-compulsive tendencies and daily habits upended audience expectations about the young bomber. In addition, the director’s use of a light blue color palette gave the film a visual grace.
But, by themselves, these elements cannot rectify the film’s paucity of ideas. The film’s extensive use of close-ups, jump cuts, and handheld camerawork gave it a derivative feel common to first feature films. The would-be bomber’s motivations are so unclear, her purposes so anemic, that Day Night Day Night is a curiosity at best. During the Q & A session after the screening, Loktev argued that the film’s vagueness was deliberate—we live in such politically turbulent times that we bring a great deal of knowledge to the film and fill in its gaps. But this explanation would have been viable only if the film had the courage to have a conviction of its own, one more captivating than that banal suggestions that the woman is deeply confused about how to please the non-denominational God for whom she is acting and that her lack of clear identity signifies that the threat she poses may come from anywhere.
A still from I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone
Unlike Day Night Day Night, Tsai Ming-Liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone bravely and generously violates all sorts of cinematic norms. Shot in long, languid takes that seem to last for an eternity, the film purposefully includes action that most other films would omit. Hsiao (Lee Kang-Sheng) has been beaten by immigrant workers in a poor district of Kuala Lumpur (though this action, uniquely, takes place off-screen); as Rawang (Norman Atun) nurses Hsiao back to health, the camera often lingers on their interaction, including an extended sequence in which Rawang helps Hsiao walk down a hallway so he can relieve himself. Later, Hsiao sits in an abandoned factory, eating his lunch while a machine nearby pumps water. In another long take, Chyi (Chen Shiang-Chyi) places a compress on the head of a paralyzed, comatose man; later, she bathes him and brushes his teeth.
The apparent narrative purpose of these scenes is not immediately clear, and the confusion from watching them is only exacerbated by Tsai’s refusal to cut away to more “meaningful” content. But Tsai’s technique and the film’s almost distended structure make the images cohere with a clarity often missing from more crowded films. I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone is partly about Kuala Lumpur’s urban underdevelopment, its dilapidated neighborhoods, and the numerous immigrant workers who live there. The film is also about alternative subjects: the places and the people mainstream cinema typically either ignores or sentimentalizes.
But perhaps most importantly, the film is about the inherent tenderness, and the inevitability, of human connection, and Tsai’s extended takes and use of a loose parallel structure give the film a quietness that is appropriate to its subject matter. The film’s massive lack of dialog fulfills the director’s concern, expressed before the screening, about the world being noisy; while most filmmakers respond to a noisy world by making noisier films, Tsai injects his films with silence. Chyi cares for the paralyzed man; Rawang cares for Hsiao; the three gradually come together through mutual attraction and fraternity. Tsai allows their developing closeness to speak for itself, without needing the characters to communicate. Like the French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunot, Tsai lets the objects that his characters share become extensions of their feelings. Rawang finds, cleans, and sleeps on an old mattress, while Chyi cherishes a toy lamp given to her by Hsiao. The film culminates beautifully in one of the most tender images on display at this year’s TIFF, that of Hsiao, Chyi, and Rawang floating on the mattress in the midst of darkness, with the lamp trailing behind them.
A number of other films testified to the promising state of international cinema in the twenty-first century. Abderrhamane Sissako’s heartbreaking Bamako, about a mock trial between Mali citizens and the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, features the director’s painterly visual style and an underlying commentary about the hegemony not only of Western politics but of Hollywood culture itself. Stefan Krohmer’s Summer 04 improves on time-worn European treatments of the bourgeois family by turning a family vacation into a deeply moving tragedy about the failures of liberal responsibility. Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth is an exceedingly demanding formal experiment about family, class, gentrification, and loneliness in Lisbon, and it makes use of surrealism, fiction, quasi-documentary, extended monologues, extended silence, and an almost chiaroscuro visual palette. Few feature films at the TIFF were as maddeningly difficult as Colossal Youth, but few were as rich. Writing about the film during the Cannes Film Festival, Kent Jones, in Film Comment, called it a “a hauntingly incantatory experience” and predicted that it “will be mulled over, scrutinized, perhaps rejected, and maybe even adored.”
Image from Fantasma
But, among all the films I saw at the TIFF, two in particular committed the kinds of heroic violations necessary for the survival of cinema as an art. The first is Lisandro Alonso’s Fantasma, an homage to Tsai Ming-Liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn that borrows a number of Tsai’s trademark techniques (long takes, lack of dialogue) while fulfilling Alonso’s belief that the purpose of cinema is to make us think. This minimalist, self-referential film follows Argentino Vargas as he loses himself in the empty lobby, hallways, elevators, offices, and screening rooms of a Buenos Aires movie theater while he awaits a screening of Alonso’s own Los muertos, which Vargas himself starred in. The film offers no story, only a loose concept, and in so doing proves a real challenge to audience expectations of cinema and of narrative in general. The film prompted walk-outs in Cannes, as well as a few people leaving the Paramount theater in Toronto, but this is a testament to its violation of prevailing norms. By following Vargas and a few other individuals through the interior of the theater and observing them as they view a film, Fantasma achieves several notable things. It becomes a statement about the power of images, on their own, to create and sustain atmosphere, feeling, anxiety, and wonder. It explores the tyranny of space, the ways in which our surroundings, particularly in an urban environment, can exacerbate feelings of loneliness. Most of all, Fantasma is an experimental commentary on the very act of watching the cinema in an age in which films have become straightjacketed by norms and their own status as part of a global industry. The screening of Los muertos in this large multiplex is virtually empty, which says as much about independent cinema as it does about the ultimate ends of its mainstream cousin.
From Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life
The other film is Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life, which had been added to this year’s TIFF immediately after it won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and which may very well be one of the great masterpieces of this young century. Jia employs a subtle, harmoniously parallel narrative structure to survey the current state of Chinese society during an evolving moment of construction and destruction, stasis and change, here represented by a drama along the Yangtze River in the Three Gorges Region. Jia’s primary technique is the panning shot, which provides an endless array of visual wonders and just one of the many connotations of the film’s title; the manner in which Jia observes everyday objects such as tea bags, watches, jars, bottles, tables, food, cards, and money allows viewers to appreciate these things anew, in the same way that painted still lifes once did. In addition, Jia’s sense of composition and his use of high definition video recast the stereotypical wide-angle shot. His vistas of the structures, bridges, ferry boats, dwellings, and streets of the Three Gorges Region illuminate just how much squalor has come to exist among so much natural beauty. And Jia has a way of situating his two main characters, who individually are searching for spouses from whom they have been separated, that simultaneously conveys the wonder and the tragedy inherent in the life here; in but one example, a woman and her husband discuss the status of their marriage against the backdrop of the very Three Gorges Dam that has forced the citizens of the region to relocate and has already submerged many of their homes.
Jia has seriously upped the ante here. His long, uninterrupted shots are tiny narratives of their own, containing within them unspoken commentaries about the working class in China, about their habits, their culture, pastimes, meals, and social behavior. He surveys economic and social change through purely visual means; the images of the male lead, Han Sanming, hammering away in unison with other workers as they tear down Fengjie’s residences say more about the China today than any garrulous monologue ever could. And Jia also raises the question of the very nature of filmmaking itself; he interweaves this tapestry of social, familial, and economic change with images that underscore the fictional, almost meta-filmic, qualities of cinema. The sudden appearance of extraterrestrial phenomena brings viewers out of the narrative, reminding them that cinema is partly about the making of objects, just as movie-watching is partly about the watching of objects. For all of its verisimilitude, cinema is still artificial, surreal, even magical.
Although the more inventive, demanding, courageous films at the TIFF illustrate the limitless formal and visual potential of cinema, in the end formal and visual experimentation is not enough. Cinematic heroism does not necessarily involve violations of formal norms or of visual style; it can also involve the expansion of emotional norms, or in the very least a redefinition of the ways in which we understand the boundaries of human experience. This is a tall order because it requires a precision that only a heightened sense of empathy can provide; as Wallace Stegner once said about his own medium, literature, “any fiction writer is obligated to be to some degree a lover of his fellowmen.”
Still from the movie Red Road
Applied not only to this festival, but to cinema in general, this axiom goes a long way in describing how even a somewhat conventionally structured film can prove to be a significant achievement. Andrea Arnold’s patient thriller, Red Road, unfolds in a graceful, careful manner, smartly delaying its mysteries until late into the film’s final act. As it follows a CCTV operator named Jackie (Kate Dickie), who keeps on eye on Glasgow’s streets, the film overturns the contemporary question about state surveillance by examining the life of someone on the government side of the camera. The film’s first half consists largely of quiet vignettes, which not only draw out the nature of Jackie’s job but also pose lingering questions about her empty relationships, her loneliness, and her lack of meaningful connection to anything. When Jackie begins tracking a local citizen she apparently knows (though how and why are obscured), Red Road begins to turn on that most standard of film devices, plot. But it keeps its mystery in tow, gradually filling in the pieces until the back story, the motivations, and the relationships between the characters become clear.
However, the ensuing clarity is not of the conventional thriller variety. Red Road is ultimately not about crime, guilt, or, as its title suggests, the vagaries of living in a very depersonalized strip of tower blocks in modern Glasgow. The film uses its thriller elements to uncover a devastating secret about its central character’s life, and in so doing explores the nearly unlimited power of grief and loss, and how both can drive individuals to act in ways that, under normal circumstances, they never would. The power of Arnold’s film is not to be underestimated. Its formal qualities might disappoint those critics who believe that formal experimentation is a satisfactory end in and of itself, but in the careful manner in which it tells its story, and in its visual coherence, Red Road gives us something that any kind of film must provide: an affecting experience. Arnold frames her tender subject matter in the cool, dark blues and grays and reds of Scotland’s long sunrises and sunsets, and occasionally pauses her camera at waist level to observe the powerful undertones of Jackie’s life. A brief, quiet image of her clutching the clothing of a loved one, though not groundbreaking in purely formal terms, was as searing as any other image at the TIFF. As a violation of viewer comfort, in a film about different kinds of physical and emotional violations, it is emblematic of a festival that proved the cinema is, once again, committing the kinds of violations necessary for its evolution.
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