(originally published in The Outreach Connection in November 2005)
This is the ninth and last of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2005 Toronto Film Festival.
Drawing Restraint 9 (Matthew Barney)
Matthew Barney’s already semi-legendary Cremaster cycle, made over a decade, finally arrived at the Cinematheque, then at the Carlton, last year, and the complete work ranked among my top ten for the year. The films are as consciously “arty’ as anything you’ll ever see – their perversity and incredible individuality serve as a constant challenge to all preconceptions, but they also achieve a remarkable degree of coherence. They didn’t seem to attract much attention in film circles, which I think shows how even relatively enterprising viewers regard narrative and character as integral to cinema (even for documentaries). They certainly felt like interlopers at the Carlton. I came across one of the series again this year at an art museum in Berlin, where – impeccably displayed against a white background in a vast empty room, with rows of headphones neatly arrayed on a facing bench– it certainly seemed more at home. But the Toronto festival – which also maintains an avant-garde “Wavelengths” sidebar – nevertheless found room for Barney’s new film in its Visions section. For added cultural resonance, it stars Bjork, who is Barney’s off-screen partner, and it has songs by her as well.
The film is as fascinating as the Cremaster films, and somewhat more accessible if the measure of that is the semblance of a linear plot (not enough of a semblance though that I would get anywhere by trying to describe it here). The locus of the action is a real-life Japanese whaling ship, on which the crew engage in vaguely industrial activities which look convincing in terms of the obvious labour expended on screen, but by their lack of utility are obviously an aesthetic contrivance; and a pair of “Occidental visitors” played by Barney and Bjork, who undergo a strange process of transformation involving nudity, extravagant dress-up, mutilation and cannibalism. The film’s varied texture also draws heavily on Barney’s abiding affinity for sticky, malleable substances that might seem to embody some kind of creative potential.
His great insight is of human activity – whether utilitarian or artistic – as an almost rational outgrowth of organic, cellular processes (the refrain of Bjork’s ultimate song is “nature conspires to help you”). He communicates this partly through recurring imagery and juxtaposition – water is a repeating motif here, both in its great capacity as spawn of life and as the medium for a climactic death ritual - and partly through a rendering-strange of the familiar: a tea-making scene comprises superficially recognizable steps, carried out through completely alien-looking objects and ingredients. Barney is a genius at creating a mythology appearing to carry centuries’ worth of elaboration and weight.
Japan, which to a (I know, superficial) Western perspective connotes both spiritual refinement and extreme modern prowess, provides a whole realm of resonances here, with the ultimate bloody denouement yielding a range of echoes from hara-kiri to sushi (!) As with the Cremaster cycle, the experience of watching the film generally seems to belong to something other than straightforward cinematic pleasure, although to make too much of that would understate Barney’s immense control of the elements, and of his unwaveringly rich visual landscape. Overall it appears to me a masterpiece, but even if he makes ten more films as good, I think it will be difficult for Barney to earn his place in the pantheon; his work is beyond cinema, but may too easily be perceived as something that falls short of it.
More Festival Movies
So that’s the last of the films I saw at the festival, and it was one of my favourites, along with Les Amants regulieres, The Sun and Three Times. Since then, a bunch of festival movies have opened commercially, so here are reviews of some of those. Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride is a most nicely conceived and executed animated trifle; after the ungainly Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Burton’s string of underwhelming live-action films before that, it strongly suggests that this is the best medium for his still delectably weird imagination. Roman Polanski’s Oliver Twist never completely transcends the feeling that another version of this material simply isn’t necessary, but it’s extremely well-mounted. Some have found Polanski’s hand barely detectable in the film, but the scrupulous portrayal of its receding central figure amid such grimness and deprivation provides a strong thematic link to The Pianist, and then there’s the withering portrayal of societal hypocrisy. Curtis Hanson’s In her Shoes has Cameron Diaz and Toni Collette as superficially dissimilar sisters who, of course, need each other desperately. It’s a pleasant but slack movie, not ineffective at provoking the viewer’s emotions, but relying for that on easy mechanisms of loss and reconciliation.
Proof was an entertaining play, although surely not as intellectually scintillating as all the awards would suggest. John Madden’s filming of it exposes the material’s thinness, losing the stage version’s coherence (and, if memory serves, most of the laughs); it’s pleasant, but has no reason to exist. Much the same goes for Everything is Illuminated. I haven’t read Jonathan Safran Foer’s highly-regarded source novel, but Liev Schreiber’s filming of it makes only limited sense on its own terms. Elijah Wood’s main character is an eccentricity-bedecked cipher, and the material amounts to little more than a meandering road movie puffed up with high-minded allusions.
Mike Mills’ Thumbsucker is a moderately intriguing, loose-limbed portrayal of its James Dean-lite central character – a teenager whose neuroses are encapsulated in his inability to quit sucking his thumb – but ultimately it’s too fragmented and inconsequential, with little thematic payoff. And the best bits are all in the trailer. Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home: Bob Dylan, a three and a half hour documentary on the singer’s early career (up to his 1966 motorcycle accident), has already played on PBS and is also available on DVD. Constructed from fascinating archival footage and insightful contemporary interviews (including some surprisingly articulate self-analysis by Dylan himself), it’s a wonderful viewing experience (I would imagine that holds for anyone, but I’ll admit to be a longstanding Dylan fan). The film richly evokes the musical subculture against which he arose, without ever descending into trite evaluations or theories of causation – it justifies the view of Dylan as the “voice of a generation” while preserving all the wayward ambiguity about what that voice actually consisted of.
Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown was a big disappointment at the festival, and had some twenty minutes removed before its commercial release, in which form it still seems significantly overlong. It would take an entire article to set out the film’s incoherencies, indulgences, plain oddities and other weaknesses; overall it leaves the impression that Crowe really had no good idea for a movie, and put something together out of isolated scenes and concepts, lazily strung together with his trademark “mood.” Orlando Bloom, as a failed shoe designer visiting a small Tennessee town for his father’s memorial service, is hardly an effective centre for all this. Despite everything, Crowe’s talent as a director does frequently come through, but it really is a badly thought-out effort.
More next time...