Stuck in basements, tanks and various landscapes of inescapable desolation, I will fondly remember this year's Toronto International Film Festival as a procession of utter despair. From the first press screening last Thursday night of Lu Chuan's "The City of Life and Death," an unsparing black-and-white epic about the 1937 Nanking massacre, which largely forgoes character development for lots of carnage, to Jean-Luc Godard's 1-minute fittingly titled "Un Catastrophe" - a meditation on love and war tucked away in the experimental Wavelengths program (available for viewing here, what began as a curious trend slowly became a kind of obsessive search for films about Apocalypse.
The mission was inspired early on with bigger titles such as the Coen Brothers' "A Serious Man" and John Hillcoat's "The Road," two exquisitely photographed visions of the uncontrollable, unexplainable chaos of existence, with the certainty of death, looming on the horizon like a dark, swirling tornado, offering humanity its only definitive answer. The two films - distinctive and indelible - were among the best of the fest's main attractions.
Samuel Maoz's Venice best picture winner "Lebanon," a claustrophobic account of the 1982 Israeli invasion set entirely inside a tank, is similarly dark and unrelenting. Formally unique, but dramatically familiar - including such combat - film cliches as the naive young recruit afraid of pulling the trigger and the bullish senior officer who eventually emerges sympathetic - Maoz's vision of war as a disorienting nightmare nevertheless makes for some compelling cinema.
Particularly intriguing, there's the narrowing vision of the tank's periscope, the soldier's - and the viewer's - only glimpse of the outside world. There's something strangely voyeuristic, too, as the tank driver shifts focal lengths like a camera (from wide to close-up, with the sound of a loud "plunk" every time it shifts). The film also has a stunningly visceral quality: a yellow goo oozes down the tanks' panels; you can almost smell the dank, putrid interior. And reminiscent of Andrej Wadja's similarly claustrophobic war drama "Kanal," the character's faces are covered with the dirt, grime and piss of battle.
The Swedish experimental thriller "The Ape" follows its central character so closely and relentlessly that the film's outside locations feel just as confining as in "Lebanon." The first thirty minutes are excruciatingly opaque: We see a man washing blood from his body, and then follow him through random acts, riding his bicycle, working as a driving instructor, playing tennis, while brief signs of guilt and fury slowly emerge. When the first plot-twist finally emerges, it's predictable, but what follows really sets the story in motion (think "The Road," of fathers and sons). Better as it goes along, "The Ape" vaguely recalls the Dardennes, with an intriguing pay-off for the most patient of viewers and a subtly harrowing message about man's inhumanity.
Then along came Chris Smith's lucid, compelling portrait "Collapse," bringing everything wrong and scary about the world from these fictional movies into the harrowing light of reality. Recalling Errol Morris' study of Robert S. McNamara in "The Fog of War" - though "Mr. Death's" Fred Leutcher may be a more apt comparison - Smith ("American Movie") employs the formalist style of his lesser-known work ("American Job") for an interview-based documentary about Michael Ruppert, a peak-oil doomsayer, who may be "batshit insane" as well as a credible expression of our current fears about the future of civilization.
Fittingly set in some sparely lit subterranean basement, where Ruppert smokes cigarettes like some noir protagonist trapped and under interrogation, "Collapse" is composed entirely of the former LAPD officer and journalist talking, mainly about the inevitable end of society as we know it because of the planet's limited resources. The film moves along briskly, with plenty of illustrative archival footage and Ruppert's emphatic, arrogant and angry way with words. This is a man who has little doubt about his convictions ("There is no such thing as clean coal"; "ethanol is a complete joke; "I don't deal with conspiracy theories," he says, "I deal with conspiracy fact.")
Ruppert encourages a sort of Darwinian survivalism with a priceless anecdote about a bear that invades a camp: "You don't have to run faster than the bear," he says. "You only have to be faster than the slowest camper." A lesson for us all.
If Ruppert sounds bitter and misanthropic, he also ultimately comes across as deeply human, vulnerable and sad. One of the biggest revelations of the film isn't the CIA's role in drug smuggling, Smith's initial entry-point into the subject, or the value that organic seeds may have as a future currency, but that the high-point of Ruppert's day is walking down the street with his dog in Culver City, eliciting as many smiles as he can from passersby.
Coincidentally (or not?), Ruppert's alarmist calls to action echoed elsewhere in the festival's lineup. For a more in-depth look at the futility of mankind's obsession with oil, there was also "Petropolis: Aerial Perspectives on the Alberta Tar Sands," a poetic documentary featurette by "Manufactured Landscapes" cinematographer Peter Mettler that unveils the environmental devastations wrought by the excavation of tar sands, a mix of dirt and bitumen, a sticky petroleum substance, that appears to create more waste in its production than what it's worth.
Likewise, Carter Gunn and Ross McDonnell's "Colony" - which could have easily been titled "collapse" - examines the ominous disappearance of more than 1/3 of the United States' bee population in recent years. Elegantly shot and edited, with sublime cinematography of bees, in close-up and flying across the frame in beautiful arrays, "Colony" is more art-doc than expose, however, not so much looking to solve the mystery of "colony collapse disorder," but to show the lives of beekeepers, particularly a small operation run by a family of Orthodox Christians.
Certainly, the doc hints at the potentially catastrophic dangers that declining bee populations present for the food supply, and gives voice to several theories - is it the fault of new pesticides? - but the film is more ambiguous and complex. As one beekeeper and biologist says, in a statement that the Coen brothers would surely agree with, "the more you know, the less you know."