(originally published in The Outreach Connection in October 2007)
This is the fourth of Jack Hughes’ reports from the 2007 Toronto Film Festival.
Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog)
Herzog has been making documentaries for nearly forty years now, and in some ways this one involves fairly conventional subject matter by his often extreme standards: a visit to the McMurdo Station base in Antarctica, where he checks out the daily life and undergoes some expeditionary side trips. Herzog doesn’t take the screen this time round, but he’s highly present as narrator and off-screen interviewer, throwing in plenty of his quirky self - he refers to McMurdo’s accommodating “abominations such as…yoga classes” and fills his interviews with off-kilter queries such as whether insanity exists among penguins. Herzog seems to be pessimistic about mankind’s long-term chances, and yet is dismissive about “tree huggers”: always a wacky theorist at best, he remains a celebrant of pioneers and iconoclasts, whether it be scientists who spend their days on the lip of an active volcano (which harks back to Herzog’s classic La Soufriere) or a lone penguin determinedly heading away from its family, toward the mountains and certain death – maybe insane, but certainly admirable in Herzog’s eyes. The title refers not only to the geographic location but also to the sense that mankind’s first outpost on an alien world might look something like this; the beautiful underwater photography also resembles science fiction at times.
Useless (Jia Zhang-Ke)
The young director Jia has already hit a major high point with The World, a piercing examination of alienation within modern China. In the few years since then, he’s worked in a more minimalist vein, including a couple of documentaries. The latest of these, Useless, conveys the sense of a stream of consciousness, almost as if Jia started filming in one fairly randomly chosen place and then followed wherever the connections took him. Fashion is the primary linkage, from a rural factory to a high-concept Paris fashion show, to poor tailors squeezing out a living on mending threadbare garments. The title “Useless” is the translation of the latest line by the designer Ma Ke, who while seeming sincere and pleasant, nevertheless lives in astonishing splendour compared to virtually everyone else in the film, spouting various airy aphorisms that suggest she’s lost touch. The title also carries easy resonance beyond that of course. It’s almost impossible to make a documentary about contemporary China that’s anything other than fascinating, and Jia provides some fascinating parallels and contrasts while withholding any overt interpretation (there’s no voice over and only a few explanatory captions). It’s very worthwhile viewing but I don’t think this is his most valuable vein: hopefully the next film will again evidence greater ambition and personal investment.
Chronicle d’un ete (Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin)
A festival sidebar devoted to Quebec director Michel Brault provided my first chance to see this famous 1961 cinema verite milestone (on which Brault acted as one of the cinematographers). It attracted a very sparse audience, suggesting again that the festival’s great success in galvanizing the mainstream for ten days doesn’t necessarily serve as the rising tide to lift the cinematic appetite as a whole. The film is a great time capsule, at times seeming more naïve than profound now, but yielding numerous fascinating moments. Starting off by interviewing random passers-by on their degree of happiness, it evolves into a more probing examination of working class lives and then into broader vignettes of the 1960 summer. The Algerian war looms large, and it’s an age when even a relatively young woman could have a concentration camp ID tattooed on her arm, but we also take in St. Tropez vacations and amateur rock-climbing attempts. The film comments throughout on its own making, including an epilogue in which the main participants debate what we’ve just seen, differing markedly on the degree to which some of them were “acting” rather than simply being. For all the talk of truth, manipulation (in the sense of directorial choice, influence, juxtaposition, etc.) is inevitably prominent throughout, but the earnestness is still engaging. It’s a shame that something like the Documentary Channel, in between seemingly endless close-up examinations of the porn industry, can’t make historic material like this more readily available.
And here are two more I caught up with in their current commercial release.
In the Valley of Elah (Paul Haggis)
Haggis’ somber drama, an amalgam of detective story and sorrowful war requiem, is a way better picture than his Oscar-winning Crash, which I found almost unwatchable. It also relies too much on coincidence and contrivance: for instance, Tommy Lee Jones, playing amateur detective, is almost always a step ahead of the cops on the case. But that helps here to illuminate the overall theme of eroding American values, particularly in its most cherished institutions. Jones plays a retired military man who’s probably never questioned the code in his whole life; one of his two sons died in uniform, and the other has now disappeared, just days after returning from a tour of duty in Iraq: military and civilian police fight over jurisdiction, with neither side seemingly caring. It’s carefully worked out, and although the film has struck some as being rather plodding, I found the desolate tone – perfectly refracted through Jones – quite moving. It’s good on the heartland culture too, precisely deploying drinks and cigarettes and strip joints (and Bibles and Support our Troops signs), and it dares to suggest that the strategic blunder of Iraq might have engendered a near-pathology in the troops. A truly great film would have explored that idea at least a little more directly. The denouement comes in a bit of a rush, and the final scene (messing with the Stars and Stripes, no less) is a return to heavy-handed symbolism, but it’s an interesting piece overall.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik)
That train-length title tells you the project here: to take a well-established, often-mythologized historical event, and scrutinize it with an objectivity that eschews normal suspense; as such the film runs over two and a half hours, and is often deliberately dour. Brad Pitt is interestingly ambiguous, if as usual a bit too recessive, as Jesse, with Casey Affleck doing pretty well with Robert Ford’s arc from naïve hero-worship to spooked self-preservation. But Dominik doesn’t fill this ambitious framework with anything like enough substance – there’s not a strand, not a ghost of an idea here, that hasn’t been done better before. Of course that’s true of most modern movies – it’s a mature art form, what can you expect? – but Dominik’s apparent pretensions to stand astride the genre invite these comparisons to come flooding in, causing the film to virtually implode.