Greg Klymkiw’s Colonial Report (on cinema) from the Dominion of Canada
Canadians are better educated, smarter, more socially conscious, modest, polite and quieter than our American brothers and sisters. This is fact. Alas, in the national pride department, Uncle Sam beats our insanely muted approach to flag-waving hands down. The exception to this rule is hockey. When Canucks play this greatest of all great games on an international sheet of ice, our pride-meter slides precariously close to the edge, rivalling even that of the Home of the Brave (though meekly, never besting it). I’m reminded of this rare equilibrium twixt our otherwise contrasting nations thanks to a pair of fine new pictures making their North American bows at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on the heels of their triumphant Cannes debuts in the spring.
Foxcatcher is released in UK cinemas on 9 January 2015 by Entertainment One. Red Army will be released on 19 June 2015 by Curzon Film World.
Foxcatcher (Bennett Miller, 2014) ****
Red Army (Gabe Polsky, 2014) ***
Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher and Gabe Polsky’s Red Army are sure to make a huge splash in Canada and the US, where they are being distributed by Mongrel Media and Sony Pictures Classics. Both will no doubt generate major Oscar-buzz here, which has almost become TIFF’s raison d’être, in addition to screening hundreds of movies and acting as an international press junket.
As a staunch denizen of the Dominion of Canada, what makes these two films interesting is how, as sports pictures, they help underline the differences between this vast northern Commonwealth colony and the good old US of A – especially how our respective propaganda machines relate to national pride.
In America, propaganda is everything.
In Canada, propaganda is, well, you know, it’s kind of okay, uh, you know, sort of, because it’s sometimes necessary, well, not necessary, or rather, yes, okay, it is indubitably, sort of vital, but not really, eh.
Foxcatcher, one of the most exciting American movies of the year, very strangely employs propagandistic elements within the narrative structure provided by screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, which, in turn, the director Bennett Miller superbly jockeys in his overall mise-en-scène. Astonishingly, the filmmakers manage to have their cake and eat it too. By offering a detailed examination of propaganda within the context of American history and society, as well as a mounting and ever-subtle critical eye upon it, Miller might continue to add accolades to his mantle in addition to the Best Director nod he copped at Cannes.
The maker of the taut and compelling baseball drama Moneyball (2011) and the well crafted, though somewhat overrated Capote (2005), dazzles us here with the true-life story of Olympic wrestling champions Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and his older brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo). Though the shy, unassuming Mark is a gold medal winner in his own right, he’s been overshadowed by his dynamic, gift-of-the-gab-blessed sibling. This all changes when the beefy, brawny mat-brawler is summoned to the palatial estate of John du Pont (Steve Carell in a performance so astonishing I forgot it actually was, uh, Steve Carell until the closing credits), heir to the powerful American dynasty of the du Pont family (who amassed their fortune mainly through the manufacturing of arms for America’s war machine). John offers his unqualified financial sponsorship to Mark, a palatial guesthouse to live in and a state-of-the-art training facility on the grounds of his home. The only catch is that du Pont will be the coach. He knows nothing about coaching, though, and hires brother Dave to be his assistant (and real) coach.
The film charts the friendship between the working class stock of Mark and the privilege of John du Pont, the brothers’ envy-and-love-fused bond, John’s desire to legitimise himself in the eyes of his horsewoman mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and, of course, the endlessly fascinating, meticulous, pain-steeped training and various qualifying competitions leading to the Olympics.
Optics is the ultimate tool-in-trade of blue bloods, and here is where the screenplay and Miller’s unerring directorial eye create a layer that permeates both the narrative and visuals. Even at a low-point early on, Mark keeps the faith in his poverty and loneliness by buttressing himself with the notion that he and those who are both around him and who will follow him must continue to persevere for the sake of America.
Granted, flags are preposterously ubiquitous in America, but one almost senses that those stars and stripes have been carefully included in the backdrop and foreground of the film. One breathtaking moment includes a travelling car interior point-of-view of a huge flag unfurling in the wind as Mark drives to the du Ponts’ Foxcatcher Farms estate.
Certainly, John himself is virtually pathological in his patriotism for America, strolling through the leafy Walden-Pond-like acreage of his estate, guiding Mark to points of historical interest from the American Revolution and spouting the most fervent patriotic rhetoric within the context of virtually everything, but especially within the contexts of both war and (naturally) sports.
The film takes great pains to illustrate John’s attention to details that will accentuate his own accomplishments whether merited or, in the case of his coaching, decidedly not. He goes so far as to hire a film crew to document his work as a coach, and we’re afforded numerous moments where interviewees are cajoled into extolling his virtues, and where he delivers training and words of wisdom his team are already well versed in, which manage to take on mythic proportions through the lens of the cameras.
Brilliantly and with great subtlety, the film’s sense of optics and propaganda amongst the nobility feels infused to a point where non-Americans and certainly discriminating American audiences will sense that Foxcatcher is itself propaganda. As the tale progresses and John du Pont’s inbred eccentricities give way to his becoming slowly and dangerously unhinged, so too does the film shift gears into critical territory. The perception of the American Dream sours and leads to a sad, shocking and downright tragic film about delusions of grandeur transforming into psychopathic proportions – not unlike America itself.
Gabe Polsky’s feature length documentary Red Army is as much about the propaganda machine (of Cold War Russia) as it is pure propaganda unto itself, by placing undue emphasis upon the rivalry between America and the Soviet Union on the blood-spattered battleground of ice hockey competition. Polsky has fashioned a downright spellbinding history of the Red Army hockey team, which eventually became a near-juggernaut of Soviet skill and superiority in the world.
In spite of this, many Canadians will call the film a total crock-and-bull story. While a Maple Leaf perspective might provide an eye more sensitive to Miller’s exploration of the propagandistic gymnastics of American blue blood powerbrokers, there is bound to be more than just a little crying foul over Polsky’s film.
I perhaps have the bias of growing up intimately within the universe of world competition hockey. My own father, Julian Klymkiw, played goal for Canada’s national team in the 1960s, a team that was managed by Chas Maddin (filmmaker Guy Maddin’s father). Guy and I eventually became the respective director-producer team behind Tales from the Gimli Hospital, Archangel and Careful. Maddin went on to immortalise a ‘non-professional’ team from the wintry Canadian prairies in the Jody Shapiro-produced My Winnipeg. It even featured a beefy lookalike of yours-truly wearing a uniform emblazoned with the name ‘Julian Klymberger’ (the surname being one of my own nicknames in years past). To say we were both well aware of the true rivalry in international hockey would be an understatement.
But one didn’t need to actually grow up in hockey families intimately involved with various Team Canada hockey leagues to realise that the United States was a blip on the Soviet rivalry-radar. The only famous match-up between the Soviets and America happened during the 1980 Olympics, when a team of veritable untested ‘kids’ hammered the Soviets (immortalised as the 2004 Walt Disney Studios feature film Miracle starring Kurt Russell).
Polsky’s film uses this match as the film’s primary structural tent pole, and completely ignores the historic 1972 Canada-USSR Summit Series, which has gone down in most histories (save, perhaps, for America’s) as the greatest display of hockey war of all time. His film also ignores, though pays passing lip service, to the fact that the real rivalry throughout the 1970s and 1980s had virtually nothing to do with America and everything to do with Canada and Russia.
I know this all too well.
My own father eventually became the Carling O’Keefe Breweries marketing guru who brokered huge swaths of promotional sponsorship to Team Canada over 15-or-so years and, in fact, worked closely with hockey agent/manager/promoter and Team Canada’s mastermind Alan Eagleson. Dad not only spoke a variety of Slavic languages fluently, but his decades as an amateur and pro hockey player all contributed to making him an invaluable ally to both administrators and players of Team Canada. To the latter, famed Canadian sports reporter Hal Sigurdson reported, ‘Big Julie [Klymkiw] often rolled up his sleeves and got his hands dirty behind the Canadian bench.’
I’m not, by the way, arguing the absence of my Dad in this film – he did his thing, promoting beer to promote hockey and hockey to promote beer, which allowed him to travel the world and be with all the hockey players he loved – but what I’m shocked about is how Red Army can ignore my Dad’s old pal and colleague. The film includes ONE – count ’em – ONE off-camera sound bite from Alan Eagleson.
Polsky appears to have made no effort to even interview the man himself or include the reams of historic interview footage of Eagleson that fills a multitude of archives to over-flowing. Eagleson, for all the scandals that eventually brought him down, including imprisonment for fraud and embezzlement convictions, was the game’s most important individual on the North American side to make Soviet match-ups in the Western world a reality, and to allow professional North American players to go head-to-head with the Soviets. (Though Eagleson went down in flames, my Dad always remarked straight-facedly, ‘The “Eagle” never screwed me.’)
How, then, can a documentary about Soviet hockey so wilfully mute this supremely important Canadian angle to the tale? Where are the interviews (new or archival) with such hockey superstars as Gordie Howe (including sons Mark and Marty), Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr, Marc Tardif and all the others who battled the Soviets on-ice? Why are there only mere blips of Wayne (‘The Great One’) Gretzky, most notably a clip in which he sadly refers to the Soviets’ unstoppable qualities? Why are there not more pointed interview bites with the former Soviet players discussing the strength of Canadian players? It’s not like archival footage of this doesn’t exist.
There’s only one reason for any of these errors of omission: all the aforementioned personages and angles are Canadian. Ignoring the World Hockey Association’s (WHA) bouts with the USSR is ludicrous enough, but by focusing on the 1980 Olympic tourney and placing emphasis on the National Hockey League (NHL), the latter of which is optically seen as a solely AMERICAN interest, Red Army is clearly not the definitive documentary about the Soviet players that its director and, most probably American fans and pundits, assume it is.
Even if one were to argue that the story Polsky was interested in telling didn’t allow for angling Canadian involvement more vigorously, ‘one’ would be wrong. The story of Soviet hockey supremacy has everything to do with Canada – a country that provided their only consistent and serious adversary, a country that embraced hockey as intensely as the USSR and a country, by virtue of Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s official policy of Canadian multiculturalism, that reflected the vast number of Canuck players who had Eastern European blood and culture coursing through them.
As a side note to this, it’s also strange how Polsky, the son of Soviet Ukrainian immigrants, ignores the fact that a huge majority of great Soviet players were ethnically Ukrainian. I vividly remember meeting so many of those legends as a kid and listening to them talk with my Dad about a day when maybe, just maybe, Ukraine would have its independence and display Ukrainian hockey superiority over the Russians, never mind the rest of the world. (Given the current struggles between Russia and Ukraine, this might have made for a very interesting political cherry-on-the-sundae.)
Ultimately, Red Army is American propaganda, or at the very least, is deeply imbued with American propagandistic elements. Given that it’s about Soviet hockey players, I find this strangely and almost hilariously ironic, which in and of itself, gives the movie big points.
All this kvetching aside, Red Army is still a good film. Focusing on the historic and political backdrop of Joseph Stalin and those leaders who followed him, all of who built up one of the greatest, if not the greatest series of hockey teams in the world, this is still a supremely entertaining movie. Polsky’s pacing, sense of character and storytelling is slick and electric. The subjects he does focus upon, the greatest line of Soviet players in hockey history, all deliver solid bedrock for a perspective many hockey fans (and even non-hockey fans) know nothing or little about.
Polsky even interviews a former KGB agent who accompanied the Soviet players to North America in order to guard against defection to the West. Here again, though, I’ll kvetch about a funny Canadian perspective. Dad not only played hockey, not only was he a marketing guy, but he even squeezed in a decade of being a damn good cop in Winnipeg, and when Team Canada went to Russia, Dad would go from hotel room to hotel room, find bugs (not the plentiful cockroaches, either) and rip the KGB surveillance devices out of their hiding places for himself, his colleagues, players and administrators from the West.
I’ll also admit to enjoying the interviews with the likes of NHL coach Scotty Bowman and Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak; however, the most compelling subject in Polsky’s film is the Soviet defenceman Slava Fetisov, who movingly recounts the early days of his hockey career, his friendship and brotherhood with the other players and his leading role in encouraging Soviet players to defect for the big money of pro hockey in North America. It’s also alternately joyous and heartbreaking to see the juxtaposition between the balletic Soviet styles of play with that of the violent, brutal North American approach.
Contrast is, of course, an important element of any storytelling, but in a visual medium like film, it’s especially vital. It’s what provides the necessary conflict. With Red Army, however, the conflict is extremely selective. It is, after all, an American movie, and as both this film and Foxcatcher prove, if Americans do anything really well, it’s propaganda. Us Canucks here in the colonies can only stew in our green-with-envy pot of inferiority. We know we’re the best, but we have no idea how to tell this to the rest of the world, and least of all, to ourselves.
Kudos to Polsky and America are unreservedly owed. They show us all how it’s done.
From the Dominion of Canada, I bid you a hearty ‘Bon Cinema’.
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
Toronto International Film Festival 2013: Miscellany
Miscellany is the theme of this final colonial report on the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, for this is ultimately the fest’s greatest stock in trade. One of the truly delightful activities during the Dominion of Canada’s greatest cultural event (bar none) is watching a variety of motion pictures from EVERYWHERE. So here, dearest scavenger of all things cinematic, is a grab bag of product I snuffled up during 10 days of movie gluttony. No better place to experience a whack of movies than in the colonies.
Tracks (John Curran, 2013) **1/2
Robyn Davidson (played by Mia Wasikowska) was an Aussie hippie chick who abandoned a formal post-secondary education and instead lived with a bunch of radical animal-science types in Adelaide (where she learned a whole ton about God’s creatures). She subsequently joined a left-wing organisation of wanker egghead fruitcakes in Sydney (that included the likes of Germaine Greer) where she grooved the Bohemia Electric. In the 70s she settled in the middle of nowhere and learned everything she always wanted to know about camels (and was, decidedly, not afraid to ask). Her first experience was with a brutal camel farmer who exploited her until, finally, she met and worked for a kindly camel expert who taught her a great deal and partially bankrolled what was to become her biggest challenge – a 1700-mile trek alone across the deserts of Western Oz from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean. Well, she wasn’t completely alone – she had her faithful mutt and a handful of ornery, but loyal camels. Since the National Geographic Society financed the sojourn, she was occasionally in the company of Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), a photographer who would add the pictorial materials to Robyn’s eventual story in the famous wildlife magazine. The two enjoyed an on-again-off-again love affair and eventually Robyn wrote a memoir that this film is based upon.
This is by no means a dreadful film. Wasikowska is a pleasing screen presence and very easy on the eyes. The camels, being insanely cute, are even easier on one’s ocular orbs. Unfortunately, the movie feels like a Walt Disney True Life Nature Adventure crossed with a Harlequin Romance in the wilds of Australia, with occasionally chaste boinking twixt the human lovebirds, and sadly none involving the camels.
Watch the trailer for Tracks:
Le démantèlement (Sébastien Pilote, 2013) *****
Who is Sébastien Pilote? Seriously, who the hell is this guy, anyway? These were questions I asked myself upon seeing his extraordinary first feature film Le vendeur. This stunning Quebecois kitchen-sink drama was so raw, real and infused with a seldom-paralleled acute pain that the film’s quiet power instantly revealed its creator’s cinematic genius. Starring the great Gilbert Sicotte as an ace car salesman in a small factory town in Quebec on the brink of total financial collapse, this staggeringly powerful, exquisitely-acted and beautifully written motion picture was, for me, the first genuine Quebecois heir apparent to the beautiful-yet-not-so-beautiful-loser genre of English-Canadian cinema (best exemplified by films like Donald Shebib’s Goin’ Down the Road, Peter Pearson’s Paperback Hero and Zale Dalen’s Skip Tracer). As if making a modern masterpiece of Quebec cinema as a first feature wasn’t enough, I eventually caught up with Pilote’s earlier short film Dust Bowl Ha! Ha! , which featured André Bouchard as a hard-working family man in small-town Quebec who stoically maintains his dignity in a world where nothing and nobody escapes the crushing weight of the financial crisis. This turned out to be one of the best short films I had ever seen – period – a phenomenal portrait of humanity, so graceful and so simple, that upon first seeing it I felt about as winded as I did after I first saw Le vendeur.
So now I have even more reason to ask: Who the fuck is Sébastien Pilote? His second feature Le démantèlement completely and utterly knocked me on my ass. Starring the legendary Gabriel Arcand as a Quebec sheep farmer, the film extraordinarily blends a neo-realist sensibility with the sort of pace one takes while appreciating a work of visual art. As such, it is not only thought-provoking drama, but visually astonishing, gorgeously lit and composed by cinematographer Michel La Veaux in a classical tradition not unlike that of Haskell Wexler’s heartbreakingly beautiful work in Bound for Glory.
Gaby Gagnon (Arcand) has worked the family farm his whole life – long after his brothers abandoned rural life, long after his wife left him to say farewell to a suffocating existence and now he continues to painstakingly toil away, often missing, but seldom seeing, the daughters he loves so dearly and who live far away in Montreal. He has friends: his loyal pal and accountant (Gilles Renaud) who brings good humour, fellowship and counsel into his life (along with an unwanted clunker of a computer); a neighbouring widow (Dominique Leduc) who endows him with warmth and commiseration; and he has a sweet-eyed, 10-year-old dog who sticks to his side faithfully. They all offer some solace to Gaby’s isolation, but when his accountant pal speaks disapprovingly about how the family seems to have all but abandoned him, Gaby shrugs it all off as being an inevitability. Thanks to Arcand’s extraordinary performance, we don’t really buy his expectations of abandonment and disappointment. If there is anything that provides Gaby with genuine solace, it is the work itself. During the first third of the film, Pilote painstakingly details the drudgery of Gaby’s daily chores, almost to the point where one feels like the movie could be a sumptuously photographed documentary about sheep farming in rural Quebec (instilling avid interest in the rearing of mutton to the unlikeliest candidates for such tutelage). I might be insane, but I could have watched Gabriel Arcand tending to this farm in Frederick Wiseman-like breadth and girth for hours.
It is in this section of the film that we get an acute sense that Gaby’s heart and soul is farming, so much so that when we eventually get to the action of the film’s title we’re devastated in extremis. This is where another aspect of Pilote’s brilliant storytelling approach sneaks stealthily upon us – we not only understand why Gaby would never imagine another life, but it seems like there isn’t a single shot or story beat employed in which we don’t fall in love with the world of the farm either. There’s nothing overtly sentimental about this approach – Pilote never tempers his gaze upon the hardships and/or challenges of farm life, but in fact creates a sense of life’s infinite give and take. To put too fine a point on it: climbing Mt. Everest is full of pain, hardship and requires a meticulous attention to every detail, but Good Goddamn (!) it’s worth it.
Watch the trailer for Le démantèlement:
When Gaby gets a visit from his oldest daughter Marie (Lucie Laurier), he’s informed that her marriage is over and she needs a $200,000 loan to buy out her debt-ridden husband’s share of her home. For both her sake and her kids, he agrees to look into finding the money by using his farm as collateral. His youngest daughter Frédérique (an exquisitely radiant Sophie Desmarais), a carefree Montreal stage actress, actually seems to have more sense than her older sister and points out to Gaby that he’s being taken advantage of if he risks the farm. And like all good fathers, he shrugs and admits he knows this.
Almost as painstaking in its detail as the recreation of farm life is the ‘dismantlement’ (the English title is The Auction), and it is here where the elements of tragedy kick into high gear. There are several subtle allusions in the film to Shakespeare’s King Lear, and as in that immortal work, I defy any audience member to not be moved to tears on several occasions throughout this emotionally devastating series of events. There are sequences of almost unbearable pain. A visit to an animal shelter to ‘take care’ of the dog nobody wants rivals the old man’s visit to the dog-pound gas chambers in Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D, while a scene where Gaby tours a decrepit, low-income housing unit is equally fraught with the same grim, stark power generated by the Italian neo-realists. The final half of the film is thoroughly heart-wrenching, but most astoundingly, it is here where Pilote demonstrates such world-wise maturity that we come to recognise and accept with both sadness and joy that it is indeed death that yields regeneration. And what soaring, truthful and deeply moving regeneration the film offers.
Who is Sébastien Pilote?
One of the greatest filmmakers of Quebec, and that means something.
A lot, actually.
Shivers (David Cronenberg, 1975) *****
A delivery boy strolls down the hall of a new luxury high rise just as a grotesquely corpulent old woman pokes her head out of a doorway and moans lasciviously: ‘I’m hungry.’ She waits for a response, then parrots petulantly: ‘I’m hungry!’ Lunging violently at the lad, her teeth bared, she screams, ‘I’m hungry for love!’ As she sates her unholy desires, a gelatinous blood-parasite is deposited down his throat as she sucks face with him. This is one of many vomit-tempting moments in David Cronenberg’s first commercial feature film, Shivers, which happily inspired incredulous Canuck pundits to demand government accountability, as the picture represented an early investment from the Dominion’s federal cultural funding agency. The 1973 horror classic has been restored by the Toronto International Film Festival, and premiered during the 2013 edition. It’s not only a scare-fest, but is also replete with all manner of nasty laughs, all of them wrenched naturally out of an utterly unnatural situation. Pre-dating the AIDS crisis, Cronenberg links sex with death. The delightfully simple tale involves a new form of parasitical venereal disease spreading like wildfire within a Montreal luxury community, gated by its island borders on the mighty St Lawrence. The disease turns its victims into homicidal sex maniacs.
Allow me to repeat that:
HOMICIDAL SEX MANIACS!!!
And what a frothy concoction Shivers truly is with all manner of viscous emissions:
• Blood parasites being vomited from a balcony onto an old lady’s clear plastic umbrella;
• Parasites roiling and bubbling just under the surface of Alan Migicovsky’s sexy, hairy belly;
• A lithe, nude body of a lassie formerly adorned in a school uniform has her midriff sliced open, her insides then drenched in acid.
Add to this frothy concoction a whole whack o’ babes, from pretty Susan Petrie as a weepy wifey, Lynn Lowry as a drop-dead gorgeous nurse, to the heart-stopping British scream queen Barbara Steele.
Stunningly, Cronenberg manages, in one salient area, to match the great Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Hitch, of course, infused utter terror in the minds of millions who dared to take a shower. In Shivers, Cronenberg delivers one of the most horrendous bathtub violations ever committed to celluloid. Best of all, the sequence involves Barbara Steele. ‘God bless you, Mr Cronenberg, God bless you!’
Watch the trailer for Shivers:
L’intrepido (Gianni Amelio, 2013) *
When someone annoys you, tell me you don’t want to just deck him, right? I mean, really fuckin’ deck him – just coldcock the sonofabitch with a solid roundhouse to the face. It’s perfectly understandable, yes? Alas, life and art are the great divide. In life, you deck the fucker. Art’s another story. If you put your fist through the movie screen, you’re guaranteed a trip to the hoosegow. Here I was, then, at TIFF 2013, watching Gianni Amelio’s latest movie – bad enough, I know – and I’m staring up at the BIG screen and forced to stomach a character I want to punch in the face.
Let me then introduce you to Antonio (Antonio Albanese). The guy’s a real piece of work. His eyes are always sparkling and he’s usually got a stupid half-smile plastered on his face. Life has dealt the loser with more than his fair share of crummy cards, but he’s so gosh-darn kind and cheerful all the time that your first impulse is to, well, you know – smash the fucker square in the face. He’s a great intellect, yet Italy is in such a financial mess that there’s no decent place for a middle-aged man like him to ply any reasonable sort of craft. He toils mule-like as a replacement worker in a myriad of menial jobs, and to add insult to injury, his wife has left him. (Any guesses why?) In spite of this, he’s such a happy fellow that when some scumbags steal pizzas out of his delivery container, he shrugs it off, goes back to the pizza joint, barters for more pizzas, delivers them to a bunch of old ladies in a sewing factory and, upon realizing that he might have a problem getting the dough he’s owed from these ravenous pizza-slurping harpies, he dazzles them with his prowess at the sewing machine. Adding to his coldcock potential, Antonio ‘meets cute’ with a gorgeous young babe. Obviously, it’s only in Italy (or in a Gianni Amelio movie) where grinning, balding, middle-aged losers with no secure employment have no problem charming the pants off young fillies. This, however, being a Gianni Amelio movie, he of the ‘I believe in the indomitable spirit of the EVERYMAN’ school of proletarian-boosting, the sickly sweetness of the tale will be tempered with bitterness, but goddamnit, we’re going to learn a good lesson.
Frankly, the only lesson I want to learn is how to coldcock a movie character living on-screen and/or in the mind of the insufferable director who’s foisted him upon me. Until then, I’ll find some dweeb in a film festival line-up, whacking me with his goddamn knapsack, shovelling granola down his throat and talking loudly with his detestable mouth open whilst his barefoot, granny-glasses-adorned, hippie-chick girlfriend who smells like she hasn’t seen a bathtub in weeks hangs on his every word. I’ll coldcock him and his girlfriend to avoid hoosegow-incarceration for vandalising a screen in a movie theatre by punching a huge hole or two in it.
Border (Alessio Cremonini, 2013) ***1/2
Fatima is a new bride. Her husband has gone to war and she lives a quiet life with her sister Aya in the conjugal flat. The sisters are extremely devout and spend a great deal of their time devoted to practising their faith. When news comes that Fatima’s husband has left the Syrian Army to join the Free Army of ‘rebels’, they have very little time to react. Aya is already a survivor of gang rape, torture and incarceration, and while she understands what could well await them, she’s also wary of the complete stranger sent by Fatima’s husband to whisk them out of Syria to safety and freedom in Turkey. Still, there’s really no choice for either woman. The actions of a totalitarian government and, to an extent, Fatima’s husband, have pretty much removed any vestige of self-determination in the matter.
After hurriedly throwing together a few essentials, they are plunged into following a man they do not know through ‘enemy’ territory. The only real choice the two women make, and it’s at great risk to their safety, is that they both refuse to remove their religious headgear which, while on the road, could well give them away. The trip is fraught with several unexpected turns that keep them from moving as quickly as had been hoped. Deception, double-crosses and danger lie around each corner.
When they discover a recently tortured and slaughtered family deep in a Syrian forest, the stark, brutal reality truly hits home, but upon discovering a lone survivor of the massacre, the women both realise that this might well be the symbolic hope they need to find safety. In so doing, however, they will also have to protect this person.
There are no false notes in Border. The superb performances, the exquisitely structured screenplay (by director Cremonini and Susan Dabbous) and finally, Cremonini’s terse helmsmanship of the action, create a tension that, at times, becomes far more unbearable than if the story had been presented in some overtly overwrought manner (as might have been the case if directed by an American). Border is, in its own way, a kind of celebration of self-determination in a world where so much is awry due to the warmongering of men, and where every step these women must take might be one step closer to the most unimaginable horrors.
Watch the trailer for Border:
Child of God (James Franco, 2013) ***** ‘Everybody knows you never go full retard…Check it out. Dustin Hoffman, Rain Man, looks retarded, acts retarded, not retarded. Counted toothpicks, cheated cards. Autistic yes, but not retarded. You know Tom Hanks, Forrest Gump . Slow, yes. Retarded, no… Peter Sellers, Being There. Infantile yes. Retarded, no… Never go full retard… Ask Sean Penn, 2001, I Am Sam. Remember? Went full retard, went home empty handed…’ Robert Downey Jr. as Kirk Lazarus in Tropic Thunder
Scott Haze as Lester Ballard, the inbred, slow-witted Tennessee cracker-barrel hero of James Franco’s stunning film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel Child of God, takes a crap on-screen, wipes his poopy-butt with a stick, delivers plenty of buttock flashes (replete with ass-crack) and dolls himself up in the most hideous drag ever wrought on the silver screen, but he most surely, undoubtedly and definitely does not serve up the aforementioned ‘full retard’. Haze’s genuinely affecting and bravely brilliant performance does, however, offer something a tad more egregious than ‘full retardation’ to keep him from his date with Oscar.
The family farm has been auctioned off and our hero, shotgun in hand, takes to an old hunting shack in the deep woods where he lives out his life. Sheriff Fate (Tim Blake Nelson) and Deputy Cotton (Jim Parrack) keep a healthy watch on Lester, since the boy occasionally flies off the handle and needs to be given some quality rest time in a padded cell. They seem oddly sympathetic to Lester, but ultimately, what can they really do when naughty shenanigans occur in the county? They’ve got to target someone. After all, our boy Lester is just plumb crazy.
Lester is also a full-bodied young lad, and when he discovers a lovers’ lane area in the backwoods, he develops a healthy penchant for peeping through the back seat windows of parked cars. As the vehicles bob up and down to the strokes of amore, the dulcet tones of moans wafting through the air, Lester handily (so to speak) beats his meat to the proceedings. One morning, he spies a vehicle still running. In the back seat are the bodies of a young couple locked in a lovers’ embrace, and they are stone cold from carbon monoxide poisoning. With keen interest, Lester notices that the young lady is awful purty. Hmmm. What’s an ornery country boy with a hard-on supposed to do in a situation like this? Well, he does what no Oscar-winning performance will ever be acknowledged for. And he does it repeatedly. Subsequent recipients of his man-juice are not quite stupid enough to die of carbon monoxide poisoning and leave their bodies lying around for pubic penetration from randy Lester. Luckily for our boy, he’s mighty handy with a shotgun.
Franco has managed to do the near impossible, in rendering a character (especially via Haze’s performance) who gains our empathy to a point where we even get the ‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, Lester, ya’ shouldn’t oughtta be doin’ that’ feeling.
Watch the trailer for Child of God:
Child of God is a genuine triumph. Franco handles the picture with verve and style. He even manages to utilise chunks of McCarthy’s prose in a series of odd ‘conversational’ voice-overs and literal title cards splashing across the screen. This technique cleverly roots the film in the glorious American literary tradition of Southern Gothic. Franco elicits a wide range of great performances and his actual coverage and composition of the dramatic action feels like the work of someone who’s been directing movies his whole career. The picture is grotesque, at times sickening and often shocking, but it is rooted in genuine humanity and is easily one of the best films of the year. (It also prompted more walkouts at the screening I attended than anything I’ve experienced at TIFF in quite some time. This alone says EVERYTHING).
Colonial Report from the Dominion of Canada (above the 49th Parallel):
Toronto International Film Festival 2013: Documentaries
Canada is home to Hot Docs, one of the biggest and best international documentary film festivals in the world, and almost nothing worth seeing in factual cinema skips their notice.
That said, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is one of the biggest and best international film festivals in the world – period. The breadth of programming includes, of course, documentary cinema, and while the number of titles is clearly lower since Hot Docs more than admirably picks up that slack every spring, in the fall, TIFF screens its fair share of high profile docs. Most are world premieres with a few designated as North American premieres.
This section of my annual TIFF report focuses on five feature docs that screened during the 2013 festival, with subjects as diverse as a movie about a movie, a movie about a very famous beekeeper, a movie about Sir Edmund Hilary, a movie about international adoption and a movie about Jews presumably not being as funny as they used to be. You’ll find everything from the great to the good to the not-so-good and, yes, the ugly. So saddle up and join me on a cinematic horsy ride through the colonies, your ever-so-loyal Dominion of Canada, with my report on a mere smattering of documentary product that was on display at the majestic madness that is the Toronto International Film Festival 2013.
When Jews Were Funny (Alan Zweig, 2013) *****
Alan Zweig made two feature films this year. The first was unveiled in the spring of 2013 at Toronto’s Hot Docs. Entitled 15 Reasons to Live, it was inspired by his friend Ray Robertson’s book of the same name.
Zweig kept the book’s 15-chapter headings to structure his film – Love, Solitude, Critical Mind, Art, Individuality, Home, Work, Humour, Friendship, Intoxication, Praise, Meaning, Body, Duty and Death – and then searched out 15 stories that best exemplified each reason to live. He shot and cut each story separately and laid them out in the aforementioned order. Each tale was honed to perfection in the cutting room first and then the transitions from tale to tale were finessed. At times these transitions were subtle and gentle, while others delivered my favourite kind of cut – the cut that takes your breath away. Literally. These cuts, when they work, are not jarring either – they kind of slide in and sidle up to you and before you know it, you’ve been winded.
This structural approach works just perfectly. The film shares an architecture similar to that of Dubliners by James Joyce and Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. It’s a literary structure that Zweig renders, quite astonishingly, into pure cinema. Each book has several great short stories that work fine on their own as such, but when taken all together, they generate an effect not unlike some dazzling combination of a full novel meshed with a mesmerizing tone poem. This cinematic application of Anderson and Joyce’s literary approaches are precisely the thing that, with this film, launched Zweig as a filmmaker into some kind of stratosphere.
Stylistic and structural leaps and bounds are one thing, but Zweig used them to make a film that brought together everything that makes his work so goddamn special; all the compassion and humanity your heart could possibly desire in a perfectly cohesive package celebrating life itself.
Zweig’s first feature-length documentary Vinyl (full disclosure: I was a producer of this film)
was not about the music, but rather, the obsessive collecting of the arcane platform the music was laid down to, the vinyl, the thing itself. As for the accumulation of vinyl, the film never resorts to the obvious – it’s not a film about what’s so quaintly eccentric about collecting, but what, in fact, is missing from the lives of those who do – Zweig’s included.
Then came I, Curmudgeon – the title should speak for itself. Of the numerous ’negative’ personalities (again including Zweig) who are examined, one of them (sort of) jokes that he genuinely fears that the first words his child will learn are ‘Mama’, ’Papa’ and ’Asshole’.
I especially remember that my own response to this moment was to chuckle with considerable health – a bit of the ol’ humour o’ recognition. While watching the scene, I remembered how cute I thought it was when my daughter at age two would, from her booster seat in the car, yell out as we drove – just like her road-rage-afflicted Daddy – ’MORON!’
Some time later I realised she was not referring to the idiot Toronto drivers as ‘moron’, but, in fact, innocently thought the word for ’car’ was not ’car’, but…’moron’. (Zweig once told me I was the most negative person he knew. I balked. Mostly because I thought Zweig was the most negative person I knew. He tempered his charge, though, and said, ‘No really, you are, but you’re in denial.’)
Zweig’s third feature doc was Lovable. Somewhat less infused with self-loathing, he decided to train his camera upon women who chose to remain single. Of course, at the time, Zweig was single and had been for some time – not by choice – and he was curious as to what would drive those from the opposite sex to choose that lifestyle. (Of course, making so much out of being single he couldn’t help but allow a few threads of delectable self-loathing to creep in.)
These first three feature docs comprise a sort of semi-intentional ‘mirror trilogy’, so named as Zweig, between his penetrating, incisive and often very funny interviews, appears on camera, but only reflected in a mirror. His reason for this – initially – was that it ’looked cool’, but he later revealed it was because he could manipulate the way he appeared on camera and even to himself as he confessed to hating his appearance.
Zweig’s fourth feature documentary was A Hard Name. He is heard off camera conversing with his subjects, but no more mirror. This had nothing to do with him – well, not completely, anyway. This turned out to be a film that never fails to devastate those who watch it. Zweig talks to a group of hardened criminals, ex-cons who never, ever want to go to prison again. These were men who’d spent most of their lives institutionalised in one way or another, but now do whatever they need to do to make sure they never put themselves in a position where they’d have to do time.
There have, of course, been many documentaries about ex-cons, but none like this. It is, first and foremost, a film about forgiveness – societal forgiveness of these men, to be sure – but mostly the courage it took for these ex-cons to forgive themselves and, in some cases, the individuals and institutions responsible for abusing them in their early lives. For his efforts, Zweig won a Genie, the Canadian equivalent to the BAFTA or Oscar. For once, it could not have gone any other way, and it didn’t. The picture that should have won Best Feature Documentary – won!
Then came the aforementioned fifth feature doc, 15 Reasons to Live and now, in the very same year, he premiered his sixth feature-length documentary film at the Toronto International Film Festival. But before I discuss When Jews Were Funny, you’ll note I’ve referred to all the aforementioned as Zweig’s ‘feature documentaries’, but if truth be told, his latest feature doc is actually his seventh feature film.
In 1994, Zweig directed his first feature. The Darling Family is a tremendously moving and superbly directed film adaptation of the play by Linda Griffiths, and is an ambitious, powerful and sadly neglected dramatic motion picture that should have been seen and celebrated well beyond the brief shelf life it occupied. Its pedigree alone demanded far more attention than it received even in Canada.
Griffiths is one of the leading lights and true pioneers of Canadian theatre. She wrote and starred in Maggie and Pierre, the hit show about Maggie Sinclair and her relationship and influence upon her very famous husband, the late, great Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. The show played consistently to sold-out houses across the country. The Darling Family enjoyed a healthy, though milder box-office success than the incisive and bitterly funny satirical work about Canada’s First Lady. In many ways, though, The Darling Family might well be the play that Griffiths is best remembered for – no small thanks to a film that’s as fine an interpretation as any playwright could hope for.
Not only did Zweig brilliantly adapt this bleak kitchen sink two-hander – a sort of Canadian amalgam of gritty 1970s cinema and the ‘Angry Young Man’ genre from the UK’s 1960s New Wave – it starred its original theatrical cast, with Griffiths herself opposite the great Alan Williams as her co-star.
Williams, of course, was the legendary playwright and actor from the UK who was referred to England’s Hull Truck Theatre by none other than Mike Leigh, where he mounted his astounding one-man show The Cockroach That Ate Cincinnati, a huge hit in Britain. When he brought the show to Canada after an extensive European tour, it grabbed the Land of Maple Syrup by the short hairs and played coast-to-coast to sold-out houses. Williams emigrated to Canada not long after, and became one of the Dominion’s most prolific and successful playwrights. Now considered one of its most stalwart character actors in film and television, he also had a stint on the faculty of the famed University of Winnipeg theatre program, wherein he nurtured a huge whack of Canada’s best theatre artists.
So here’s a film from a hit play with two of Canada’s best and most beloved actor/playwrights (not to mention a haunting score by eventual Life of Pi Oscar winner Michael Danna) and it came and went without a trace. It did, however, receive a to-die-for review by Canada’s leading film critic, Geoff Pevere, in the country’s ‘newspaper of record’, The Globe and Mail. Pevere delightfully suggested that The Darling Family was perhaps the ’most perverse date movie’ audiences would ever encounter, but in his estimation, an ideal date movie.
I can’t argue with his assessment. The Darling Family is an utterly harrowing 90 minutes that wallows in the roiling emotional torment experienced (in one mega kitchen sink) by a middle-aged couple verbally jousting on opposite ends of a decision to abort a child. As date movies go, it certainly beats Sandra Bullock clomping about with Ryan Reynolds.
Alan Zweig has always been about humanity, and all his work has been infused with compassion. The subject matter (save, perhaps, for 15 Reasons to Live) might – to some – suggest otherwise, but it’s the surface darkness, the often mordant wit, the unflagging care he takes with his subjects, his refusal to let any of them off easy, and his determination to dig deep into the marrow of humanity that places him at the forefront of the world’s master filmmakers.
He’s a great interviewer – probing, insightful, funny, thoughtful and entertainingly conversational – and this, if anything, characterises a good chunk of his style. This wends its way through all his documentaries and it’s one of many reasons why it’s impossible not to be riveted by them.
He’s got an original voice as a filmmaker, in more ways than one. Firstly, there’s his voice – you know, the one lodged quite literally within his vocal chords. Nobody, but nobody can sound like Alan Zweig: a perverse blend of Eeyore in the Disney Winnie the Pooh cartoons and a craggy been-there-done-that cigar-smoke-throat-coated Borscht-Belt stand-up comic. And secondly, ABSOLUTELY nobody can make movies the way he does.
Perhaps the most telling aspect of Zweig’s original approach is that he is, first and foremost, an avid collector. His films are populated with large casts of subjects and these individuals are inextricably linked to the themes of the films, but as such, he pulls from them the things that make each one of them unique.
What he does with his filmmaking is to collect his subjects. Yes, he collects people; he steals and hoards their images (Stealing Images is the title of his classic short drama that won the very first TIFF Best Short Film prize in 1989) with the same passion he collects vinyl or books or movies or tchochkes. BUT unlike the inanimate objects he normally collects, he can’t purge himself of his collection of subjects by dropping them off at the Goodwill Store. They belong to him. Through his films, Zweig gets to keep them forever, not just for himself but also for the world.
If there’s any difference between his 2013 films and his previous work, it’s that he forced himself into maintaining a strict number of subjects to add to his collection. In 15 Reasons to Live, there is one key departure: he tells each person’s story separately without the documentarian’s crutch of weaving in and out of his subjects’ lives, stories and perspectives.
When Jews Were Funny might well be the picture to finally put Zweig over the top, and if there’s any filmmaker who deserves this more, I can’t even begin to imagine who they might be. His entire output is ripe for discovery beyond North America, and frankly, even within his own country.
A common question from some of the more befuddled subjects in the new doc goes something like: ’Is this about being Jewish or comedy?’ A fair question, but frankly, in the sense that Jews and comedy seem to be inextricably linked within the very ethos of North America, it’s probably safe to say it’s about both. In fact, it sometimes seems like the entire Ashkenazi diaspora was solely concentrated in Canada and the USA, where the seeds of stand-up comedy as we know it today were sown during the early part of the 20th century.
The sufferings that led European Jews to the ’New Land’ are incalculable. Yet, Zweig’s film proves (or at least confirms to the converted) that North American humour would not exist without Jews and, in fact, would not be as brilliantly funny and distinctive as it is without the influence of non-Jewish European prejudices, ethnocentrism and hatred foisted in their direction.
Through the subjects Zweig interviews, When Jews Were Funny furthermore presents the perversely provocative and vaguely horrific notion that without purges, pogroms and the Holocaust, the world might well have been bereft of the stand-up style and genius of Henny Youngman, Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen, Rodney Dangerfield, Don Rickles, and the list goes on, for a light-year or two at the very least.
As a film, I can’t say I’ve ever quite seen its like before. I could, of course, probably say this about all of Zweig’s films. The fact of the matter is that they are endowed with the surface tropes of the documentary genre, but he continually subverts all expectations and plunges you into the least expected territory and in a style uniquely personal and finally very much his own – so much so I predict that we’ll eventually see new generations of filmmakers drawing from his approach and using it as a springboard for their own work. This, of course, is what all great art inspires, and Zweig is poised perfectly to do this.
On its surface, When Jews Were Funny features an off-camera Zweig interviewing a wide variety of stand-up comedians who share one thing beyond their profession – they’re all Jewish. He begins his journey with some of the greatest surviving legends of comedy: Shelley Berman, Jack Carter, Shecky Greene and Norm Crosby. It’s this old guard who reject Zweig’s theories about Jews and humour almost outright, though all of them, via his interview style, come round to acknowledging the Jewish influence upon humour, save perhaps for Jack Carter who seems fairly steadfast about refusing to concede.
Watch a clip (Shelley Berman) from When Jews Were Funny:
While the sweet Shelley Berman never comes out and agrees, his separation of humour and Jewishness starts to move closer in proximity, especially during a joyously heart-rending moment when he delivers the very thing Zweig is really searching for, and why Zweig equates Jewish culture with comedy in the first place. It’s one of those extraordinary moments we can thank cinema for – and when it comes, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.
The middle-aged and younger comedians are occasionally confused by what exactly Zweig is looking for (though a number of them ‘get it’ immediately and expound upon it brilliantly). The extraordinary thing, though, is that the journey Zweig takes us on, and that we take with him, happens during his conversations. If he has an agenda, he never shows it, and in fact, it’s as if the process of making the film – the journey itself – is what allows Zweig (and the audience) to discover the wisps of those things that haunt all of us.
When you grow up, you equate popular culture of that specific time with your own ethnicity, your own religion, your family, your community, your values – all those things that shape and mould you – with what comes at you from a television, radio, movie screen, record player, magazine or newspaper, and all those you hold dear – mothers, fathers, siblings, extended family, neighbours, friends – are, yet again, inextricably linked.
Most of Zweig’s subjects confirm this. A few of them are absolutely captivating when they do so.
David Steinberg full-on addresses the very nature of suffering experienced by the Jewish people and its relationship to humour when he declares: ‘The thing that helps humour is oppression, the thing that kills humour is assimilation. If you’ve had a great childhood, a good marriage and a little bit of money, you’d make a lousy stand-up comedian.’ He also makes the point of how funny his own family was – his dad and aunt, for example, would switch to Yiddish and shoo the kids out of the room for fear they’d hear the filthy jokes emanating from their mouths.
David Brenner echoes this. He describes his dad as someone who was funnier than the entire range of great comedians put together, and tells a great story about how he’s been taught that humour exists in everything. The fatherly advice here is that to do this, one must make use of a ’third eye’, or as his dad termed it, ’the Funny Eye’ – that thing you use when looking at anything. Needless to say, the example Brenner provides is hilarious.
In fact, there isn’t a single subject who isn’t funny in the film. Almost all of them tell one or two specific jokes, but most importantly, when they’re addressing the topic at hand, they’re equally hilarious. Howie Mandel slays us with his description of how Jews can never betray themselves by feeling good; how they need to shovel every morsel of suffering into their soul when they try to say something positive, so that their faces contort into hideous grimaces, not unlike someone with the worst case of constipation imaginable as they attempt to squeeze a rock-hard turd out of their tuchus.
Bob Einstein (AKA ‘Super’ Dave Osborne) might be the only comedian interviewed who seems utterly humourless, especially since he accuses Zweig on camera of not knowing what he’s talking about, not knowing what he wants and, at one point, not even listening to him. That said, the very conflict – the meeting of two great curmudgeons, if you will – is supremely enjoyable and yes, it’s funny.
Watch a clip (Norm Crosby) from When Jews Were Funny:
‘Jews own humour and I’m proud to say that that’s true,’ says Steinberg, but it’s Gilbert Gottfried who astutely points out that Jewishness is so often muted. He states that all of the characters on Seinfeld are clearly and obviously Jewish, but that the show (and so many others like it) goes out of its way to pretend that the characters are not Jewish. Gottfried’s incredulity on this point is knee-slappingly mordant. He points out that even if a Jew converts and changes his name, he’ll still be herded into ‘whatever mode of transportation is available to be taken to whatever mode of extermination exists.’
This is a great film – brave, brilliant and personal – but (and that’s a big ’but’) its power is ultimately in its universality. Ultimately, I think there are three core audiences for this film, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily exist in separate vacuums. They might be different, but they’re all going to be infused with the same spirit.
The most obvious target would be almost anyone of Jewish heritage. I do, however, say ‘almost’ because there appears to exist a minority of this ethnic group (or, if we must, religion) that might not appreciate Zweig’s picture. Though, frankly, it’s probably a minority of one.
Allow me to explain.
I had a shocking, though telling and funny experience during the 2013 TIFF. I was scanning the humungous schedule boards displayed in the TIFF Bell Lightbox to see if I could squeeze a seventh film into what was supposed to only be a six-film day. A lady stood beside me, also scouring the board. Noticing my media badge she said, ‘I’m looking for something I can take my 80-year-old mother to tonight, but I don’t know what to choose.’ I immediately recognised the distinctive North Toronto (a huge Jewish enclave of the city) timbre in her voice.
‘Have I got a picture for you!’ I beamed ever so Eureka-like. ‘When Jews Were Funny!’
I could almost taste the bile spewing from her as she spat out, ‘Alan Zweig?’
‘Yeah, Alan Zweig. It’s his new picture. You’re not a fan?’
‘A fan? You ask if I’m a fan? I hate Alan Zweig!’
‘What’s to hate?’
‘What’s to hate? His kind of Jewishness and how he represents the Jewish people is offensive.’
She admitted she had yet to see the film, but based upon previous work – none of which has any ‘Jewishness’ save for Zweig, a Jew who happens to be the filmmaker of said ‘offensive’ films – she explained that he was among many Jewish people in the entertainment business who didn’t offer what her idea was of what it really meant to be Jewish.
‘Well, what is that?’
‘What does it really mean to be Jewish?’
‘You have to ask?’
I didn’t answer. Instead, I bravely suggested Zweig’s film might surprise her.
‘No!’ she said, as if banging the final nail herself into Christ’s flesh. ‘It’s not for me.’
Like I said, a minority of one, no doubt. It did, however, warmly remind me of the scene in Zweig’s movie when Howie Mandel does a hilarious riff on how all Jews answer questions with questions.
So, aside from Jews, the second big audience will probably be anyone – goyim, that is – and especially, I think, those of some manner of Eastern European persuasion who belong to the generation that grew up with the stand-up comedians popular during the 1950s and 70s. As a number of subjects point out, much of the humour is dependent upon the distinctively Yiddish cadence in the delivery, one so familiar to Eastern Europeans that it creeps not so subtly into their own ‘delivery’.
Finally, the third audience will be anyone who loves great movies brimming with insight, humour and the eternal quest for those defining elements of one’s past that now seem gone forever, save for one’s memory of them.
And it’s this journey that is the most profoundly moving element of the film, one that pretty much anyone, no matter what their ethnicity, race or religion will respond to. We are all haunted by those things that shaped us in our youth and the reality of how everything changes – fleeting, flickering ghosts that wither away and dissipate before us. When Jews Were Funny is a film that makes us long for those things that were once tangible, but now reside only in our spirit. If anything, we’re all His children and I can think of no better way to share in this collective desire to clutch at our past with dear life through the very special eyes of His chosen people.
Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich, 2013) ***
If we imagine a world without Star Wars, we can imagine a world where cinema was not dying as it is now. If we imagine a world where Alejandro (El Topo) Jodorowsky beat Star Wars to the punch with his planned film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s classic science fiction novel Dune, we can imagine him laying the groundwork for a new and different kind of film spectacle, rather than the empty state-of-the-art 80s blockbusters that spawned endless rollercoaster rides masquerading as movies.
Frank Pavich’s feature documentary is as close as we’re ever going to get to seeing what might have been one of the great movies of the late 20th century. A mere five-million-dollars short of becoming a reality, the film was to star Mick Jagger, Salvador Dali and Orson Welles. Seeing this doc is to indulge in the creative excitement that went into every second of preparing this epic motion picture. We experience Jodorowsky’s pride (albeit with a tinge of melancholy) at planting seeds for the future greatness of others from a movie that was never made. The films exists only in a massive frame-by-frame storyboard book with the screenplay and Jodorowsky’s notes – a document used to raise additional financing in Hollywood, but which was instead passed around to one filmmaker after another. Hollywood accepted the genius, but rejected the artist and, sadly, his film.
Watch the trailer for Jodorowsky’s Dune:
Burt’s Buzz (Jody Shapiro, 2013) ***
Jody Shapiro is a genuine creative producer and ‘Odd’ might well be his middle name. Working with Guy Maddin in the latter stages of the great surrealist’s career, Shapiro also became Isabella Rossellini’s chief collaborator on her Green Porno series.
Shapiro is clearly a natural to lovingly document the life of Burt Shavitz, the bearded hippie whose face adorns ‘Burt’s Bees’ health-store products. The film is mostly all-Burt-all-the-time. The camera loves him, and his low-key irascibility allows Shavitz to engagingly spin his own story – the city boy who moved to the backwoods to become an avid beekeeper. With assistance from the woman he loved, the company grew to gargantuan proportions and the shy country gentleman became a brand.
There’s melancholy to the tale since Burt was not happy with corporate life, and his love life dissipated. He sold his shares in the company and his ‘brand’ for peanuts. He continues, however, to make a decent living doing personal appearances.
Shapiro wisely bounces between the solace of Burt on his farm and the genuine adulation he receives during live appearances. This simple, but effective, juxtaposition presents the contrast, conflict and two sides of the coin that is Burt Shavitz. It’s essentially a sweet, funny and loving portrait of a man, his dog and his bee farm. He occasionally trots out to do a horse and pony act at trade shows and malls, but he enjoys the adulation afforded him by the fans and, most of all, his fees allow him the privilege of living most of his life the way he likes it best – in solitude among hills, trees, birds and, of course, the bees.
Watch the trailer for Burt’s Buzz:
Beyond the Edge (Leanne Pooley, 2013) **
Sir Edmund Hillary’s climb to the top of Mt. Everest in 1953 is the thrilling subject of Beyond the Edge. Alas, the picture falls short of its potential, in spite of considerable technical wizardry and clearly exhaustive research. Unrestricted access to archival material (including gorgeous 16mm colour footage, Alf Gregory’s legendary 35mm stills and what seems like every audio interview with the participants that’s ever been laid to tape) makes the film’s failure all the more frustrating.
Three key elements extract their toll: the filling in of blanks with newly shot dramatic recreations (ugh!), the abominable 3D, and the over-zealous attempts to match colour for the myriad of audio-visual materials. That said, the 3D is especially problematic. It’s maddening how the moronically polarised 3D glasses darken everything to distraction. Where this hurts the most is in the historical motion picture footage and stills, the colours of which are so vibrant that in 3D they pale in comparison. Just try popping the glasses off periodically (during any picture in 3D, frankly) and you’ll see how egregious the process is.
For the overall colour grading, an extreme post-modernist approach would have been far preferable to matching and muting the colours. State of the art, however, seems to have been the ruinous goal. A film that pushed aesthetic boundaries rather than technical ones might have been far more vital. I’m sure a boundary-pusher like Sir Eddie might have even agreed.
Watch the trailer for Beyond the Edge :
The Dark Matter of Love (Sarah McCarthy, 2012) *
I wanted, but ultimately could not, respond to this tale of love and bonding between three Russian orphans (among the last to be allowed adoptive parents from outside Russia since Vladimir ‘Just Call Me Uncle Joe’ Putin outlawed international adoption) and their new Apple Pie American family.
Seeing these Russian kids flung into an America that spun the world into a major financial crisis and various wars, an America that seemingly learned nothing from the chaos created by its political and corporate leaders and, worst of all, that sense of gaudy consumerism coming to life on-screen before my very eyes, all conspired to make me wonder what that movie would have been like to see instead of this one – which, sadly, is not very good. The Dark Matter of Love is supposed to be a story about kids who need love, want love, but have never experienced love. How do you give love to a child that doesn’t know what love is? Well, it’s not rocket science – with great difficulty and patience.
The American family in question are clearly fine and generous people with plenty of love to give. We see their frustration at not getting love back, the jealousy experienced by their biological daughter and the overall turmoil that building a new family unit results in.This is all undermined by the regrettable accent placed upon the ludicrous application of certain psychological principles rooted in the film’s title – that love is a matter of science, and that in extreme situations such as this, one must turn to medical professionals. From a strictly moral standpoint, I had problems swallowing this. For my liking it’s all too typically Dr. Phil (the famous reality TV talk-show shrink who presents a hugely rated barrage of suffering Americans and offers all manner of platitudinous pop-psychology to ease the pain).
Worse yet, the film emphasises the gobbledygook of a duo of scientists and trains its camera on them as they watch footage of the family trying to cope – spewing their babble as if they were bloody sports commentators – treating the emotional gymnastics of the family as if they were engaged in a particularly strenuous football match.
The film never really allows us an opportunity to experience what could have been a very moving documentary involving a genuine dilemma faced by thousands, if not millions of families. There is, or was, a great movie in here. In fact, it could have been one of several movies far more engaging and vital than this one proved to be.
The Unknown Known (Errol Morris, 2013) ****
Ace documentary filmmaker Errol Morris is back in familiar territory with this one-on-one exploration of the life and times of George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, the clearly gifted master of political doubletalk, misinformation, disinformation and perhaps one of the most dangerous, despicable and evil Americans of the past decade. Much like The Fog of War, Morris’s exploration of Robert McNamara, Defense Secretary during the Vietnam War, the veteran filmmaker hits his new subject with tough questions, attempting to paint as honest a portrait as possible of a political mastermind of legal mass murder, or, if you will, the war against terror. McNamara was a different beast, though. He at least seemed to be telling the truth. None of that – truth, that is – appears to be on display here.
With a malevolent grin, Rumsfeld makes you think he’s letting the cat in the bag slip out, but in the same breath, he’s letting you know the cat’s still in the bag, and that his final word on the matter will always ensure that the bag’s indeed in the river. In fact, we never get a clear picture of anything from Rumsfeld. It always seems clear, but never feels truthful. In several contexts, Rumsfeld is caught completely contradicting himself and hilariously ignoring and/or talking his way out of his obvious falsehoods and/or discrepancies. We’re witness to one magnificent turn of phrase after another. The man is a master spin-doctor and, even more astoundingly, he might actually be the best generator of juicy sound bites in the world – ever. Here’s a tiny, but choice grocery list of a few of them:
‘All generalisations are false, including this one,’ he proclaims.
‘The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,’ he opines on weapons of mass destruction, or lack thereof, in Iraq.
Watch a clip from The Unknown Known:
Rumsfeld treats us to one of his astounding humdingers (which Morris uses for the film’s title): ‘There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we don’t know we don’t know. The unknown known, however, is a thing that we know, but are unaware of knowing.’
The whole movie is a hoot from beginning to end, but what we’re ultimately presented and left with is 96 minutes of lies – or, at the very least, what Rumsfeld wants us to hear, even if he knows we don’t believe a word.
The man has no shame. None. He could have been a president.
Now happily settled into its multi-million dollar purpose-built home, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, the statistics alone give some indication of the scale the Toronto International Film Festival has reached now. Of the 4,143 total submissions from 72 countries, 372 feature films in total were ultimately screened and, as the official fact sheet notes, that is 30,918 minutes of film. A dutiful film critic would have to attend 37.2 features a day to come to grips with the entire festival – a sobering thought for audiences and filmmakers alike. It is near impossible to venture an overall opinion as to the tone or theme that arose, though an observation is that the quality of the films, not unexpectedly, ranged from adequate to very good, with a dearth – for this writer – of anything in the future ‘classics’ category. For me, some much-anticipated films were a bit of a let down, notably the heroin-chic, self-conscious style of Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. What the world doesn’t really need is another ‘name’ director having a go at the vampire genre. Nevertheless, critical opinion was divided on this one. It was, however, a bumper year for documentaries and these were standouts: Burt’s Buzz (Jody Shapiro), Jodorowsky’s Dune (Frank Pavich), When Jews Were Funny (Alan Zweig), Filthy Gorgeous: The Bob Guccione Story (Barry Avrich) and Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Marcel Ophuls). Below I take a look at some of these and some other highlights from the festival.
iNumber Number (Donovan Marsh, 2013)
Expect loads of action, shoot ’em ups, and fast paced – though occasionally over the top – scenes of brutality and violence in this South African crime thriller. This is a grimy world where corruption among police officers is not the exception, and the story of Chili and his partner Shoes is one of straight cops trying to do their best and play it right, but getting screwed at every turn. Deciding that honesty does not pay, Chili decides to infiltrate a gang who are planning a heist and then taking the money when it’s done. But in a taut and well-paced scene, the gang members discover his identity and subsequently kidnap Shoes. Very well edited, the many killing-spree scenes build to a tremendous if over-wrought finale. Sheer exuberance and energy define this film, and director Donovan Marsh deserves credit for putting together a great cast: the leads are convincing and the secondary characters are well-drawn and provide enough eccentricity to add a touch of black humour to the proceedings. Donovan has studied his Tarantino but learned to trim some of the excess fat; one can only hope that was an aesthetic and not a budgetary lesson. Ultimately, we’ve seen the plot loads of times, but the setting adds a new dimension to the narrative and style.
Watch the trailer for iNumber Number :
Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Mohammad Rasoulof, 2013)
This Iranian film about a surreptitiously printed manuscript, which details the truth behind a failed government plot to kill 21 writers and journalists in a staged bus accident, is a searing indictment of the Iranian regime and its ruthless attempts at censorship and control of the truth. It follows two impoverished men working for the regime as assassins, who are tasked with getting back the three extant copies of the manuscript in question. The two have been hired to find – and eliminate – the remaining writers who have the scripts and to return them to the government offices. Their task is no more, no less than to silence any opposition to the official government line. The matter-of-fact way that they go about their business while in pursuit brings to mind the mundane conversations between the hitmen in Pulp Fiction, though with less ironic patter and more of a ‘just making a living’ urgency. Beautifully shot in wintry colours, the sense of desperation of the oppressed victims and the moral and ethical dimensions of the script are wonderfully realised by director Mohammad Rasoulof. A superior meditation on state violence, oppression, censorship and morality in contemporary Iran, the film won a Fipresci prize at Cannes this year.
Closed Curtain (Jafar Panahi, Kabozia Partovi, 2013)
The unstoppable Jafar Panahi has made his second film since being sentenced to house arrest for six years and banned from filmmaking for twenty years. His earlier feature, This Is Not a Film was smuggled out of Iran to Cannes in 2011. Two years later the tone of his new film is darker, more claustrophobic and has overtones of death wishes – Panahi films a fictional suicide of himself as part of the narrative. Establishing the mood of the film with his everyday ritual of taking in the groceries and then blacking out all his windows from spying eyes, we the audience are trapped with him in his beach house, where he lives among his memories of better days, his film posters and scripts. That narrative arc is abandoned by the abrupt entry into his house of two absconding young people…Who are they? Why are they there? Are they undercover Revolutionary Guards? As the elliptical mystery unfolds, no one – least of all Panahi – are even certain that they are not figments of imagination or projections of his cracking psyche. This is a brave and imaginative film given the circumstances of its production, and the extremely limited means and freedoms within which the director is forced to work. It would be churlish to gripe too much about insignificant technical or formal details given this situation, and better to state that it is a successful and, in its own way, life-affirming piece of work. Let’s hope the new regime will see the folly in keeping him under arrest and cinematically speechless.
Watch the trailer for Closed Curtain:
Palestine Stereo (Rashid Masharawi, 2013)
The production credits say much about the state of funding for Palestinian films. It is a Palestine/Tunisia/Norway/United Arab Emirates/Italy/Switzerland financial pudding – but nonetheless focussed for all that input. ‘Stereo’ is a nickname for a former wedding singer who, having lost his home and wife in an Israeli missile strike, has likewise lost the spirit to sing. His brother Samy is an electrician who lost his ability to speak or hear in the same bombing. Deciding to emigrate to Canada, the two undertake various schemes to earn money, most notably renting out sound equipment from the back of an old, used ambulance which they purchased. Balancing the absurdities of West Bank life with a compassionate, humane and ironic – sometimes droll – script and sensibility, Rashid Masharawi has produced a touching and realistic film which doesn’t shy from awkward politics or from the complications of life in Ramallah. A film that makes its points and is served by a terrific cast, especially the actor Mahmud Abu-Jazi. A film, then, with something to say, and for me one of the best of the festival. It is a follow-up to his successful Laila’s Birthday.
A Wolf at the Door (Fernando Coimbra, 2013)
At long last, a Brazilian bunny boiler! Which to some extent gives the plot away. Learning that their six-year-old daughter has been picked up at school by an unknown woman, a distraught husband and wife, Bernardo and Sylvia, wait furtively at the police station for any news. During the course of their own questioning, Bernardo confesses to the detective that he thinks it may have been his lover, Rosa, who was responsible. When she calls him, Bernardo decides to take matters into his own hands, and meets with her in hopes of having his daughter returned. From here darkness descends upon this thriller, and the back stories and duplicitous nature of the protagonists are slowly revealed. As are the cruelty of humans and the lengths to which revenge can be taken. Suffice it to say that the Todorovian idea of narratives – equilibrium established, equilibrium disrupted, equilibrium restored – does not quite apply to this feature debut by Fernando Coimbra.
Watch a clip from A Wolf at the Door:
Brazilian Western (René Sampaio, 2013)
Another first feature from Brazil, René Sampaio’s gangster/thriller film is set in Brasilia, where the main character, Joao, comes from the wrong side of the racial tracks and the wrong side of the law – at the start of the film Joao kills the cop who killed his father. After doing his time for the crime he heads to the big city, where a relative is able to get him a job as a carpenter’s assistant, but he must also agree to do some moonlighting as a drug dealer. As he gets deeper and deeper into the morass of dealing, he encounters a beautiful, white architecture student whose father is a Senator. Cue racial tensions and fatherly disapproval, but also cue audience bewilderment as to quite why a privileged upper-class student would fall so completely and utterly for this convicted dealer, and risk everything – life and limb – to be with him. But as in the other Brazilian film, A Wolf at the Door, the unusual settings – in this case Oscar Niemeyer’s famous utopian architectural buildings standing in stark contrast to the shantytowns butted up against them – make for a more insightful exposition about crime, punishment and retribution in other cultural milieus.
Watch the trailer for Brazilian Western:
To the Wolf (Aran Hughes, Christina Koutsospyrou, 2013)
I wanted to report on this film as, for me, it was a year of seeing less-known national cinematic offerings, in this case a Greek/UK co-production set in rural Greece and featuring a large cast of goats. Extremely long takes and even longer static shots tell the tale of extreme marginal existence in contemporary Greece, where the peasantry is particularly hard hit by the economic crisis. A bleak film shot in drizzly rain conditions, and utilising local shepherds, it’s a quasi-documentary which doesn’t so much tell a story as it reveals a situation. Regrettably the audience doesn’t really get to know much about the characters – other than their menial existence and constant complaint – and so no real empathy evolves. Added to this is the fact that this film is not an example of slow cinema, or even slower cinema, but slowest cinema. The running time of 74 minutes felt considerably longer.
Ain’t Misbehavin’ (Marcel Ophüls, 2013)
In this autobiographical, self-directed film, the renowned documentary filmmaker, 85-year-old Marcel Ophüls, looks back on his life, talking with old friends and discussing a variety of clips from his films. And he has had quite a life – son of the great Max, he spent many years in Hollywood among the likes of Preston Sturges and Bertolt Brecht. Deciding to become a film director himself, he made first fiction films and then switched to documentaries, which is where he gained an international reputation with films such as The Sorrow and the Pity (1969) and Hotel Terminus (1988). The history that he has lived through and the remarkable people he has come into contact with make this a fascinating history piece, but it is the curious mix of this and his own accounts of life good and bad, lucky and unlucky, and his unsparing critique – and lauding – of himself that fascinates. The tales of his confrontations with war criminals and his often-appalling tales of how he has treated his wife make for an unflinching and wholly satisfactory self-portrait rich in detail, remembrance, humour and curmudgeonliness.
Watch the trailer for Ain’t Misbehavin’:
Le Week-end (Roger Michell, 2013)
This satisfying film written by Hanif Kureishi centres on two older characters who choose to return to the site of their honeymoon, Paris, after 30 long years of marriage. This city of romance and escape is not going to alter the emotional tensions and anxieties that fairly bleed between the two characters. But this film neither cow-tows to the recent trends in making older couples’ cinematic presence charming or cloying, but rather shows them as bickering, snappy, frustrated, yet still reliant on one another, and full of a curious kind of affection. It is a softer Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. As the sea between them rises and falls, they go through a weekend journey both comedic and serious.
Le Week-end is released in the UK by Curzon Film World and out now cinemas nationwide.
The duo of Jim Broadbent and Lindsay Duncan and their obvious acting chemistry brings out the best of Kureishi’s script, and Lindsay Duncan’s work in the film is particularly noteworthy and something of a revelation. During their flanerie about Paris they run into old school chum, Morgan, played by Jeff Goldblum. But Goldblum’s style of acting tends to subvert the delicate balance between pathos and comedy that has been established by Broadbent and Duncan, and this exaggerated and non-realistic performance from Goldblum throws the film a bit off-kilter. The climactic dinner scene is effective, if a bit predictable, but nevertheless, Le Week-End is a bitter-sweet confection, and the knowing nod to Godard at the end of the film is a subtle touch and makes for a satisfying conclusion.
James B. Evans
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews