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Road Trip: Toronto International Film Festival 2012   

Girish Shambu


I live in Buffalo, New York, a city rich in architectural history. Frank Lloyd Wright designed several structures here; Louis Sullivan’s ornate Guaranty Building was one of America’s early skyscrapers; and the city’s vast park system was the creation of Frederick Law Olmsted, among the great landscape architects of the nineteenth century.


But there is one kind of history that my city tragically lacks: a living history of cinema. There are no repertory theatres here; the city’s world-famous modern art museum, the Albright-Knox, has no cinémathèque or film series; and there are no venues or occasions for film retrospectives. Large multiplexes rule Buffalo; and a few art-house theatres struggle to survive by showing mostly indie and middlebrow contemporary fare.


Which is why, last September, just as I have done each September for the last fifteen years, I loaded up my car with a week’s worth of clothes and bare necessities and headed up to Canada for the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).  


As soon as I arrived, and before I saw a single minute of cinema projected at the festival, I witnessed a striking contrast of personalities that would help me make sense of my first film there, Sophie Fiennes’ documentary The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. At the screening, Fiennes and the film’s producers were welcomed to the stage first; they were tastefully, unostentatiously dressed; Fiennes spoke briefly, quietly. Slavoj Žižek then strode on stage in a sweat-stained T-shirt and, rather than taking his place beside the director and the producers, he marched up to the podium and immediately broke into a joke about Lenin, Stalin and Hitler. He finished up by declaring, not a little boastfully, that the film we were about to see was a piece of ‘old-fashioned Communist propaganda’. Having said this, he made an immediate and grand exit to applause. But something lingered: a sense of dissonance in personality and temperament between the soft-spoken, modest Fiennes and the verbose, steamrolling Žižek.


Is Žižek a good critic of cinema? I have often wrestled with this question. Žižek frequently trains a single interpretive paradigm – that of Lacanian psychoanalysis – on every fragment of cinema he chooses to analyse. I do not use the word ‘fragment’ casually: Žižek has claimed that he often does not watch films in their entirety, instead fast-forwarding only to certain segments, and using these bits to mount his arguments. In a revealing interview, he also claims to have written an essay on Roberto Rossellini’s films without seeing any of them. (He finds them ‘boring.’) (1) This is not a practice Žižek limits to films: he discloses in the same interview that he has often written about books while being familiar with only their CliffsNotes study aids. Half-seriously, he proposes the idea of writing a CliffsNotes aid for a non-existent book, then gauging the reaction and response to it before deciding whether to actually write the book itself. All of this cries out to us to deem his critical practice suspect.


To the charge that he is a one-note Lacanian, one could counter that Žižek can sing another, powerful note: that of the Marxist analysis of ideology. In our late-capitalist era, when neoliberalism takes hold in every corner of the world and when global economic inequalities escalate alarmingly, this form of ideological analysis, with a special sensitivity to our postmodernity and its specific cultural manifestations, is a valuable activity. And in Žižek’s further defense, the new film – like its predecessor, Fiennes’ The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006) – has in its favor the fact that it truly both entertains and engages.


1. Interview with Slavoj Žižek in Gary Olson and Lynn Worsham (eds.), Critical Intellectuals on Writing (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003), p. 196-198.


For me, this strength of Fiennes’ film does not issue from its gimmickry – Žižek dressed up as a nun in The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965) or as Travis Bickle in his fatigues, analysing the movie scenes he is in – but in the stimulating ideas he steadily generates throughout the film. Let me give two examples. The documentary opens on the famous, long fight scene from John Carpenter’s They Live (1988), in which Roddy Piper tries repeatedly to make his friend Keith David wear the special dark glasses which will allow him to see through the façade of lies and into the ‘truth’ of things. The epic agony of this fight is extended by David’s absurd and excessive resistance to trying on the glasses, a resistance that is persuasively read by Žižek as David’s extreme reluctance to ‘step out of ideology’. In this instant, Žižek puts us all in David’s shoes: the prospect of breaking the illusion constructed for us by ideology is just too terrifying to contemplate. At this moment we come to realise that the pain of stepping out of ideology far outstrips our desire to unmask it.


In another segment, Žižek analyses the ‘universal adaptability’ of a world-famous piece of music, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. He catalogues the ideological range of uses to which this piece of music has been annexed: by Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, China, Rhodesia, Peru’s ‘Shining Path’ revolutionary movement, the Tokyo Olympiad (a clip from Kon Ichikawa’s great film makes an appearance) and the European Union, for which it is the official anthem. This towering work of art, he argues, is ‘an idealised empty container open to all possibilities’, a vessel that will (dangerously) hold and accommodate all ideologies.  In the numerous politically charged passages such as these, in which Žižek’s arguments are made through images, sound and philosophical work, the film is riveting.


Here is my one reservation: the movie does not seem as effectively shaped, moulded and sequenced as it might have been. Its movement from one passage to another, from one idea to another, does not always reveal an underlying logic. I have a theory about why this might be so. Fiennes disclosed in the Q&A that the process went something like this: she read several books by Žižek, marked up parts she particularly liked, and sent them to him as possible candidates. He selected some, and scenes were planned. There were no rehearsals per se; on set, Žižek would take a few minutes to collect his thoughts and the cameras would roll. He would speak extemporaneously. Very few takes were done – often only one. In short, there appears to have been very little directing of Žižek – a little surprising, given that his text and narration drive the entire film. I am speculating that what Fiennes found herself with in post-production were large blocks of text-heavy footage with neither a through-line (other than the too-broad category of ‘ideology’) or a developmental line of one or more arguments. So, the film moves from one passage to the next in no particular sequence and with no particular rationale as to the overall design. But, despite its lack of clear shape, this is a consistently engaging, thought-provoking and critical film for which I wish a large audience.


If Žižek clearly overpowers Fiennes, for better or worse, as the auteur of Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love presents a different case study in auteurism. Reading the Cannes and Toronto reviews, it quickly became clear that this film was bringing out certain anxieties in the auteurist commentator. Most critics seemed to like the film well enough, but their attention was hijacked by another set of questions: exactly in what ways was this a Kiarostami film? Apart from all the time the characters spend in cars, how do the style and themes of this film link up to his previous ones? Not finding a ready answer to these questions, the auteurist critic was left a bit suspicious – and disappointed.


Which is a shame, because once we let go of our need for overly legible auteur coherence, there is much to admire in Like Someone in Love. Upon learning that Kiarostami was making a film in Japan, many assumed, in light of his experimental film Five Dedicated to Ozu (2003), that it might have been inspired by or intended as a tribute to Ozu. Perhaps the example of another world-class art-filmmaker, Hou Hsiao-hsien and Café Lumière (2004), conditioned these expectations. Hou’s film was explicitly intended as a homage, and managed the miracle of simultaneously deeply acknowledging Ozu while staying completely true to Hou’s own aesthetic concerns.


But, to my eyes, it is Mizoguchi rather than Ozu who is the key reference point here. Like Someone in Love is a dark and pessimistic ‘woman’s film’ set in a world of patriarchal oppression featuring a prostitute, a pimp and a jealous lover. And the lead character played by Rin Takanashi is a woman – as in many of Mizoguchi’s films – much more acted upon than acting. Further, Kiarostami and Mizoguchi share a powerful interest in at least two things: drawing attention to the artifice of storytelling and art-making; and a rigorous but expressive carving out of physical space, through both shot composition and the use of mobile camera. Both these shared interests are evident in Like Someone in Love.


Kiarostami takes urban spaces that are everyday in the extreme – a bar, a garage, a living room of a tiny apartment – and charges them with uncertainty by restricting our field of vision through framing, and the frequent refusal of reverse shots. Perceptually, this shifts our attention to a more acute reliance on off-screen sound. In one radical instance, we hear an off-screen woman conduct a conversation with a man who is on-screen, but we do not get to situate her, or her mysterious spatial coordinates in relation to him, until a much later scene! At one stage of his career (think of the Koker trilogy), Kiarostami created a sense of uncertainty in the viewer by physically distancing us with the use of long shots. Here, paradoxically, he closes in (this is a film made up almost exclusively of medium shots and medium close-ups) but generates no less of a distance – only, this time, it is through the withholding compositions and sound design.


But no film at the festival took more joy in the artifice and play of storytelling than Brian De Palma’s Passion. De Palma remakes the late Alain Corneau’s final film, Crime d’amour (Love Crime, 2010), a corporate/erotic thriller, and the narrative, which begins in a spirit of great fidelity to the original, slowly and imaginatively breaks away from it. Most significantly, the seductive, fluid images of Passion bear little resemblance to Corneau’s deliberately flat, abstract and colourless constructions.


In a nutshell: the narrative tracks the intrigue that results when a Berlin advertising agency executive (Rachel McAdams) steals the idea of her assistant (Noomi Rapace) and passes it off as her own. Yes, it could not be more immediately clear that the contours of the plot and the genre within which he is working are totally, utterly familiar, but De Palma – as in his most personal films such as Sisters (1972), Dressed to Kill (1980), Raising Cain (1992) or Femme Fatale (2002) – is proposing radical counter-models to conventional, deeply ingrained, common-sense ways of viewing.


Cinema is a profoundly synthetic art form that, in theory, is permitted to draw promiscuously from the other arts – literature, theatre, music, painting, sculpture, poetry and dance. But conventional approaches to viewing narrative cinema (that turn out to be remarkably deep-rooted) do not truly allow each of those rich source forms an equal footing. The inheritances of literature and theatre, implicitly, occupy a privileged place in the expectations most viewers bring to a film.


Concomitantly, human characters – not merely their presence, but their individual depth, and the plausibility of their actions – take on a larger importance for us than they do for viewers of painting or listeners of music. This humanist expectation infuses nearly all narrative cinema to one degree or another.


So, what is at stake in De Palma’s best films is precisely this: a reconfiguration of cinema by taking seriously the inheritance of those neglected source forms (like dance, music and painting), and using them to shift the balance away from the cinematic hegemony of literature and theatre. One powerful effect of this move is that it de-centres ‘full’ human beings, who, especially in De Palma’s intensely lyricised set-pieces, turn into figures that belong more to music, dance or painting than they do to novels or plays. The resulting a-humanism is sometimes difficult for viewers – even connoisseurs of sophisticated art films! – to handle. But perhaps it is precisely because he does not make rarefied art films, but rather, proudly, exuberantly impure cinema, that De Palma divides festival audiences.


One of the changes to the plot in Passion is small but extremely revealing. In the original, an important ‘alibi scene’ occurs at a film screening. Another powerfully cinephilic filmmaker like De Palma would probably have left this explicit cinematic reference in the remake, and even played it up, but De Palma replaces it with a dance performance of ‘Afternoon of a Faun’. Famously, this piece, considered one of the first modern ballets, was choreographed by Nijinsky for the Ballet Russes in 1912, and was set to Debussy’s ‘Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun’. Both the ballet and the music were in turn inspired by Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem of the same name. And the painter Léon Bakst designed the sets and costumes for the original performances. The variety of artforms that figure in the genealogy of this dance piece provides a wonderful, apt parallel to De Palma’s own strong, synthesising impulses in making cinema.


Let me now propose a bizarre double bill: Passion and Leviathan, the latter being the most remarkable film I saw at the festival. Made by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel of Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnographic Lab, Leviathan is a ferocious avant-garde documentary about commercial fishing that, in an act of brute immersion, plunges our sensorium into a terrifying environment with none of the conventional stabilising devices – like plot, character, or voice-over narration – that most films, whether fiction or documentary, offer us to grab on to. This is an ambitious film: its setting is the coast of New Bedford where Captain Ahab hunted Moby-Dick, and it possesses a cosmic force that prompted the slightly bewildered filmmakers to wonder, in interviews, about the monstrous, heavy-metal ‘epileptic crisis’ they had created, almost inadvertently, and projected on the screen.


What links Leviathan to Passion is its de-centring of the human. Most of the time, there are no people in the frame, and when they do appear, they register as pure, physical presence and as labour, without names or back-stories or any kind of psychological depth. For me, the real impact of Leviathan has to do not with visible humans beings – the brawny, battered and tattooed fishermen we see only occasionally – but with the human-made system of mass slaughter that destroys thousands of living creatures in a matter of minutes, while the viewer watches their final, writhing, wriggling moments from a viscerally proximate vantage point, through the eye of the camera often lying flat on the floor of the deck.


At moments like these, my personal politics (I am a vegan who was raised a Hindu vegetarian) crashes into my aesthetic sensibility with a terrible, convulsive power. And I am reminded once again that, for me, it is not Steven Spielberg who represents the ‘magic of the movies’ but instead an awe-inspiring, frightening and revolting nightmare such as Leviathan.


Thus, it is not only aesthetics but, equally, politics that is at the heart of true cinephilia. I could not have found a better test case for this proposition than Rama Burshtein’s Fill the Void, a film set in an Orthodox Jewish community in present-day Tel Aviv. An eighteen-year-old woman, whose sister dies in childbirth, is pressured by her family to marry the widowed husband. She resists – but will love miraculously blossom and conquer all? Suffice it to say: the answer to this question disappointed me.


The tension between aesthetics and politics is the most fascinating thing about this film. Stylistically, it is an absolute knockout. Burshtein uses an extreme shallow-focus image that immediately grabs your attention and pins it to a particular place in the frame, to a specific plane or a certain zone while deliberately, almost expressionistically blurring, pushing everything else into the background. The film is digitally shot, but it has none of the overly hard edge one often associates with HD images.  Instead, the images are soft and glowing, diffused and a little indistinct (especially around the edges), so that everything seems to be surrounded by a luminous aura.


This formal strategy is not accidental: it is tied closely to the manner in which this closed and traditional community is depicted. The film’s greatest strength is the way we get a thick, detailed description of this community from the inside. In one striking scene, during a Purim celebration, a rabbi sits at the head of the table, and invites each member of his congregation to his side, asks them their troubles and offers advice or money or both. Other rituals – like a wedding – are recreated with impressive precision. All the men and women are dressed in beautiful, traditional garb, and the formal control I mentioned above shows off the people, their clothes, their homes, and their lives to maximum, visually pleasing effect.


My central reservation with Fill the Void is that it is ostensibly a woman-centred film, but lacks a feminist consciousness. The young woman protagonist is the primary point of focus, and she is portrayed with great, generous psychological detail – individualised in a way that grabs our attention and sympathy. But this is precisely the problem: we remain at the level of individual decisions and actions, without ever moving to a higher level of systemic reflection or questioning or critique. In other words, this is a woman-focused film that is deeply conservative. It has a strong interest in the inner lives of women, but it nevertheless almost completely endorses the patriarchal structure within which they live. And the narrative progression quite unambiguously bears out this conservatism.


Fill the Void’s thick description of a social group is shared, in an unlikely pairing, by Noah Baumbach’s brilliant comedy of manners, Frances Ha, co-written with and starring the gifted Greta Gerwig.  Here, the group being portrayed is white, privileged, educated but under-employed, upper-middle-class twenty-somethings living in New York. This is not a class that we generally consider ‘oppressed’, one that makes an urgent demand on our sympathies. But the film nevertheless manages to generate a wonderful poignancy because of what it has to say about the nature of work and life in the early 21st century. Frances (played by Gerwig) is a perfectly competent and hard-working dancer in a company who is let go because of organisational cost-cutting, and then offered a job by the same company as an office secretary. She refuses (‘Why would I take that?’), because she trained as a dancer and fully believes it is her destined vocation. Later, she choreographs and mounts a small production of her own; a few friends and well-wishers attend. It is not a great success, really; but it is not a failure, either.


This sub-plot moved me because it crystallises the late-capitalist moment in which we live. Today, it is a brutal reality for many or most young people that their desires and aptitudes simply do not line up with the labour they perform to make a living. And so, they are forced to split their lives in two: the part they give of themselves to the world in order to simply survive, and the part they keep for themselves to devote to the work or pursuit they truly love.


The moment I cite above is merely one grace note in a dense, confident, superabundantly inventive film that is powered by dialogue and performance. While it is very much of its place and time in a closely observed, fine-grained fashion, Frances Ha is also a cinephilic love letter to the Nouvelle Vague in its black-and-white photography, its focus on young people and their cultural environment, and its use of pop music. I also detect another lineage to which it belongs: ‘films of cultural knowledge’ that are crammed with references to popular culture and its practices in all its forms, like the work of Amy Heckerling (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, 1982; Clueless, 1995; Vamps, 2012). The film is nicely edited, and its rhythms remind me of Truffaut. The scenes are short and brisk, and the cuts always come a little bit before a shot might naturally come to rest, giving the film a slightly breathless quality.


What I like best about TIFF is that it is a strong ‘anthology festival’: it collects the best films from all the festivals that precede it in the year. After the stir that Leos Carax’s Holy Motors caused at Cannes, it was a surprise and a disappointment when the film went missing in the festival line-up. Rumour had it that the Canadian distributor of the movie, chagrined by the weaker-than-expected box office receipts in France, decided not to submit it to the festival, believing that this was a film for cinephiles only – and showing it at the festival might exhaust the few hundred in the city expected to be its draw. So let me end not on a note of disappointment but of hope, by wishing that Holy Motors’ theatrical run in Toronto is an unexpected success that captures and stirs as many non-cinephiles as it does cinephiles.


from Issue 3: Masks


© Girish Shambu 2012.
Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.