TIFF Journal: On Transcendence

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In the midst of heavy rain and aggressive sun in early September, I found myself hidden away in a dark movie theater–or to be more precise in several theaters all across Toronto. This was of course for the Toronto Film Festival which brings huge crowds to see new films from around the world. The TIFF is one of the most maximalist of festivals, bringing with it an almost unique variety of films and different aesthetics from the commercial to the far extremes of experimental. Even seeing an average of three films each day, I viewed only what can be called a sampling. One searches watching film after film, if not for a great film (though I did see several and found an almost completely strong lineup) then for the truly radiant or transcendent moment.

In Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner, this came when the aging Turner goes to pose for a daguerreotype and talks with the overeager photographer. The photographer tells Turner he has previously photographed natural scenes including in Niagara Falls, showing us the change from when painting was the only way to access images of the world to when photographs (and of course moving pictures) would slowly become the way we saw the world. In the most beautiful sections of the film, Leigh and his cinematographer Dick Pope photograph natural landscape in such a way as to become the scenes painted by Turner–most memorably with the movement of a train.

Godard’s latest, Goodbye To Language 3D, offered the novelty of watching a film by Godard with 3D glasses. Far from accessible, this film felt more like an assaultive experimental work with its intensely replayed classical music, loud screams and other bodily functions, abundant nudity and abstract and often impenetrable dialogue (particularly with Godard’s spotty subtitles). Still, the film unquestionably works a spell on the viewer. At a certain point in the film, I just decided to let it simply wash over me with its sometimes stunning images of nature and, yes, Godard’s own cute dog. Perhaps the closest film in spirit to the vintage works of the French New Wave yet completely contemporary was the new film by Xavier Dolan, Mommy, which included one of the best three person dance scenes since Godard’s own Bande A Parte and is a portrait of a juvenile delinquent as full of wonder and energy as The 400 Blows.

Some other highlights were the dance scenes in Mia Hanson-Love’s Eden, Romain Duris’ joy in going shopping for clothes in Francois Ozon’s brilliant and tricky The New Girlfreind, the perfectly scored soccer game in Matías Piñeiro’s very enjoyable The Princess Of France, the colors and surprise musical numbers in the brilliantly bizarre The Voices from Marjane Satrapi, the lovely moments of motion and energy amid the largely still The Tale Of Princess Kaguya, the wonderfully sung The Last Five Years and the slow burning tension in Melanie Laurant’s relentless study of cruelty and love, Breathe. Hal Hartley’s latest, Ned Rifle, brings his trilogy of films started with Henry Fool and Fay Grimm to a close with the best of the films, with an end as shocking as it is retrospectively inevitable. Noah Baumbach’s film, While We’re Young, manages to be at once a broad comedy and perfectly specific in showing the ludicrous disconnect of hipsters who only use vintage technology and the older generations obsessed with staring into the voids of their smartphones.

In watching 20+ films you notice some interesting refrains. Some examples: I saw three documentaries about older men who very much enjoy their work and, in the case of two of the three, aerobics (Seymour: An Introduction, The Fifty Year Argument and The Kingdom Of Dreams and Madness) and two films in very different keys about aging actresses (played by Juliette Binoche and Julianne Moore) going back to roles from their youth (or mother’s youth) and their complicated relationships with their personal assistants, both with stars of the Twilight films (Clouds Of Silas Maria and Maps To The Stars). Perhaps the most surprising group of films came with Wild, Foxcatcher and The Imitation Game, all studies of loneliness. They were about people isolated and apart, often alone: on the trail, in the boxing ring and in the lab. The standout among these was Foxcatcher, a beautiful and heartbreaking film about the slowly destructive loneliness of two men which features a mercilessly self loathing performance by Channing Tatum.

A film which can be called among the most remarkable at this year’s festival was Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look Of Silence, his follow up to The Act Of Killing. While The Act Of Killing could be said to be in some sense about filmmaking ,The Look Of Silence is about film-viewing, the brother of one of the killed, Adi, viewing the footage as well as meeting with those responsible for killings, all to try to understand how these actions came to be committed. The film is one of profound empathy and courage as Adi goes to confront, without aggression, the perpetrators. The interactions are always powerful, sometimes disturbing and sometimes moving but with a constant seeking for reconciliation. Oppenheimer chooses poetic images and juxtapositions to show what life in Indonesia is like for Adi and his family after this trauma. This film reminded me just how much cinema can change the way we see the world and bring a new understanding, even of that which seems incomprehensible.

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