The 2009 Toronto International Film Festival

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, A Letter to Uncle Boonmee, Thailand 2009

The 35th Toronto International Film Festival 2009

by Rosemary Heather

For all their stately elegance and clarity of intent, on the whole, the films I saw in the Wavelengths section of TIFF, a series of screenings devoted to avant-garde film, were not involving. The comments I jotted down tell the story. My notes are voluminous. I made jokes and then would write “haha!” when I thought I was being funny. It was like I was ‘live blogging’ (one of the jokes I made…haha). They were the musings of someone venturing to entertain themselves; I was compensating for what wasn’t happening on the screen. It may be a cheap shot to say I had a good nap during avant-garde film eminence Ernie Gehr’s Waterfront Follies (2009), but it’s true. Although, I knew there was a point to the film’s strategy of presenting long static shots of a sunset in a bay somewhere,I struggled to remember what it was. In Gehr’s case, refusing to abide by the conventions of narrative cinema has the value of deepening and expanding upon the viewer’s perception of time, and to a certain extent, his film succeeded in having this effect on me. Given the deeply distracted state of a portable-computing-enhanced contemporary existence, it is curious to think there would be no need for an antidote like this. But I would be happy if I never saw Gehr’s film, or any film like it, again.

Even given my apparent unsuitability for such viewing, I am tempted to say that our culture has moved on from the lessons avant-garde cinema has to teach us. But there were films in the Wavelengths screenings that I enjoyed. The TIFF audience was lucky enough to see Titan (2008) by Klaus Lutz, a screening that was dedicated in memorium to the Swiss filmmaker, who died just days before he was about to travel to Toronto for the festival. The film, which features Lutz making his way, sometimes crawling insect-like, through a gorgeous, optically-printed universe, fulfills an ambition close to the heart of the discipline: to recreate cinema in its originary moment, when it is closest to the dream state. Shot in lustrous black and white, Titan is profoundly connected to the now seemingly ancient traditions of the European avant-garde. The announcement of the filmmaker’s death moments before the film’s screening made it all the more otherworldly. Klaus Lutz (1940-2009) R.I.P.

I also liked the always-terrific Harun Farocki’s In comparison (2009), for counter-intuitive reasons. Does a short documentary about methods of brickmaking in different countries have to be boring? Not in Farocki’s case; the exercise was meditative and instructive. Adhering to a brick-like one-after-another structure, In comparison exemplified the ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’ approach to filmmaking. Instead of voice-over narration, Farocki used intertitles with brick diagrams to give his images’ context. Constructing a subtle joke about the very idea of inference, In comparison brings a message about the coherence of a world infused with an everyday intelligence.

By far the best film I saw in Wavelengths was A Letter to Uncle Boonmee (2009) by Apichatpong Weersethakul. In a landscape of pretenders, Weersethakul is the real deal: an artist working at the leading edge of cinematic practice today. Far from keeping his audience at the formalized distance so characteristic of the avant-garde ethos, he makes full use of cinema’s ability to immerse viewers in an experience of time and place. As with Weersethakul’s features, A Letter… is highly evocative of its location (in a luscious, rain-soaked Nabua in northeastern Thailand), but otherwise has little in common with conventional narrative cinema. Lacking the perspective of any view of the horizon, panoramic shots of the jungle work to create an interior space, inside of which the film situates the viewer. Matching the circular movement of the camera is the narrator’s repeat readings of the titular letter. Far from being an exercise in cinematic distanciation, Weersethakul makes believers of us all.

If once abhorred as being complicit with a spectacle-driven mass entertainment industry, the possibilities inherent to cinematic seduction would today seem to offer a viable strategy to the avant-garde – if only because of the level of sophistication such a strategy assumes on the part of its audience. This makes Tsai Ming-Liang’s Face the best film I saw at TIFF – although saying so is itself controversial, mainly because a number of people I talked to thought it was bad, their verdict, they suggested, backed-up by a more general consensus. Albeit long and sometimes overwrought, Face is also absurdly ambitious and extravagantly beautiful. How to enumerate its pleasures?

A series of languorous tableaux shot in Taipei, and later in the film, in and around the Louvre (for which it was a commission), Face dazzles because of the faith it invests in the power of the image. Ming-Liang has an extraordinary ability to construct film segments that reward that faith. He then redoubles the complement, through the assumption he makes that he doesn’t have to explain anything. Aside from tangentially taking place within an imaginative realm governed by the tale of Salomé, Face follows no narrative. All power to an audience that likes their cinema majestically realized and unfettered by any further explanation.

Face succeeds because of what its structure of successive tableaux allows Ming-Liang to get away with: melodrama, grand emotions, stark eroticism. It gives him the freedom to unapologetically create the world he wants. If it happens to be a world fluent in the aspirational language of globalism at its most perverse – a world of luxury and elitism, blissfully free of any knowledge of the underclass – so be it. That makes Ming-Liang’s film all the more appropriate as a coda to our era.

I liked Face because it affirms the value of beauty in the world, and of material things, as opposed to the infinite regress of irony and the referent. In this sense it shares much in common with Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (2009), except for the part about beauty, and maybe the irony too – with Korine its hard to tell. A polar opposite to Ming-Liang’s film, Trash Humpers would seem to be the product of an auteur who set out to make the worst film he could possibly think of; and in return has received nothing but accolades for his trouble. Korine’s audacity begins with his decision to shoot on VHS and blow it up to a murky 35mm. It continues with the film’s opening sequence: young people made-up to look like old people humping plastic garbage cans. This as advertised brilliance continues. The Trash Humpers smash things up, and then break into a passable-enough tap dance. Mysteriously absorbing, Korine somehow manages to sustain our interest, in itself a considerable accomplishment, given the ugly look of the film and the behaviour on view.

Some people have argued that Trash Humpers would work better as an installation, but I think on the contrary it is entirely suited to its presentation as cinema. Filmic duration and a seated (not to say captive – plenty of people left the screening I attended) audience allows it to unfold as if emanating from a recognizable place. The people in it are recognizable too. The poverty of experience on display is after all not so far fetched. You can see it every night on American TV. Notably, on shows like America’s Dumbest Criminals that seem to consist solely of meth-fuelled car cashes caught on surveillance camera, the grainy veracity of which Trash Humpers recreates. If I admit that the latter is a personal favorite of mine, I say so without attempting to justify my viewing on any terms other than voyeurism. The show offers the exploits (and exploitation of) the American underclass as entertainment. This is something I understand much better now after seeing Korine’s film. He gives the phenomenon a context larger than my own prurient interest. So I have to say “Thanks, Harmony!” – you have, paradoxically, made my world a little bit bigger and more humane. What better goal is there for cinema?

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