A samurai flick. A French comedy. An intellectually rigorous, quietly wrenching Greek drama. An heir to the classic Russian arthouse tradition. A lyrical US slacker pic. A punishing drama of racial and sexual exploitation. A martial-arts extravaganza. An almost four-hour Italian historical drama. A low-budget B&W indie indebted to Warhol and early Cassavetes. The first Monte Hellman feature in 21 years. Others.
I like to be surprised. That’s why I go to film festivals: not just for the heart-quickening thrill of seeing good work, still as intense and seductive today as it ever was, but also to have my expectations upended and, ideally, surpassed. I like to be slightly off-balance, shifting constantly between all kinds of work, from the loftily high-minded to the frivolous and fun, from all different parts of the world. It’s especially ironic, here, given that one of the main problems with spending any substantial amount of time in Venice is the city’s mono-diet – the omnipresence of pasta and pizza on any restaurant menu, and the concomitant impossibility of getting, say, a boeuf bourguignon, or a bowl of Tom ka gai, or even a simple burrito, be it good, bad or indifferent.
In the same way, I can’t live on arthouse cinema alone. No one should; it’s like calling yourself a music fan when, really, all you like is Metal. Which is precisely why this year’s Venice competition was about the best I can remember, and why it eclipsed so many other recent competitive strands – in particular, those of Berlin and Cannes. Not only for the way it ignored the artificial distinctions between Serious and Commercial filmmaking, mixing ambitious films d'auteur (“Attenberg”, “Post Mortem”, “Silent Souls”) with unabashed crowdpleasers (“Detective Dee and the Mystery of Phantom Flame,” “13 Assassins”); but for the sense of thoughtful curation from Artistic Director Marco Muller – a genuine engagement with the virtues or defects of the works on offer, not just the reputations of their makers.
I say this because, doubtless out of necessity, they’ve chosen a different, more interesting path to Cannes: eschewing the predictable list of anointed greats – the Kiarostamis and Hanekes and Loaches, et al. – and instead taking some genuine risks, elevating newer filmmakers to competition status (Kelly Reichardt, Pablo Larrain, Alexsi Fedorchenko), while also rewarding those who’ve toiled long on the back benches (Takashi Miike, Alex de la Iglesia). And deservedly so, since almost every one of these filmmakers stepped up and delivered a piece of work that justified its inclusion in the official selection.
As consistently engaging as it was to sit through, the Concorso also signaled that this is a festival looking outward rather than inward. One actively engaging with a cinema landscape that’s both smaller and more disparate than ever before – while at the same time, seeking to move us past the classic, modernist paradigm of what can or should constitute A Festival Film, an idée fixe that has, in the past decade, yielded increasingly arid, hermetic and unsatisfying returns. Necessity, in this case, proved the mother of invention.
Which is not to say it was all sunshine and lollipops. The Italian entries were uniformly dismal. de la Iglesia’s “Ballad of a Sad Trumpet” (an arthouse title par eminence) was a loud, incoherent mess, unredeemed even by the inclusion of killer clowns. And the surprise movie, also in Competition – Wang Bing’s “The Ditch” – proved something of a damp squib for many viewers. (Perhaps it’s the Maoist in him, but Muller appears intent upon leaching every aspect of pleasure or reward out of the whole “film sorpresa” concept: you get the feeling that his idea of a big surprise would be to bound up and inform you loudly that your mother was dead.) My own, earlier suspicion, based on its “North American Premiere” status at Toronto, that the surprise entry would turn out to be Ji-woon Kim’s serial-killer movie, “I Saw The Devil,” proved sadly unfounded; Signor Muller’s distaste for South Korean cinema appears intact.
Firmly on the credit side of the ledger, though, was Takashi Miike’s “13 Assassins”, which as a lover of the classical samurai film (my favourite: Kobayashi’s great 1967 “Rebellion”), I’d approached more out of curiosity than actual hope. For one thing, Miike’s prolificacy, like Michael Winterbottom’s, often gets the better of him. So much of his work seems rushed, insufficiently thought-through or developed. If he made half as many features, you sense, they’d likely be twice as good.
Then there was the matter of his sensibility, his tendency to embrace the cruelest and most grotesque elements of any situation, often at the expense of the story he’s trying to tell. Having just endured an hour of Sion Sono’s camp, wearying “Cold Fish” – a serial killer movie derailed by its maker’s inability to pitch a scene at anything quieter than a shout – I feared that, despite the fact this is technically a remake (of Eichi Kudo’s 1963 original), Miike might choose to take an similarly glib, “subversive” spin on the material.
To my relief, he did no such thing. Instead, he approached the story with respect and affection, but not timid reverence. It began with the chief sword-for-hire, Shinzaemon (played by the great Koji Yakusho, a leading man in the classic, Gary Cooper mold), methodically assembling his team of doomed, noble samurai and stray ronin, all eager, in that Japanese way, to die in the service of a good cause – in this case, the slaughter of a young lord of the Shogunate, whose violent cruelty to his subjects exceeded the usual droit de seigneur, and tipped over into something else, a philosophically-inclined nihilism.
For the first fifty minutes, it gathered steam. Men were enlisted, plans outlined. There were conversations about the nature and limits of honor, the implacability of fate and and the longing unto death. The mood was both wry and tender, resigned to the fate these men had chosen. And then the battle began. From the ingenuity of the Thirteen’s methods (two words: flaming boars), to the relentless, well-choreographed carnage of the final half-hour, this was a treat, by turns funny and gripping and sad – and one which, in the process, revealed those recent Yoji Yamada samurai flicks for the polite, pedestrian efforts they are.
Another genre flick – Ben Affleck’s “The Town,” screening out of competition – boasted a similar degree of care in its execution, and provided just as much pleasure. A heist flick, set in and around Charlestown, Mass., a neighbourhood populated almost exclusively by Irish-Catholic bank robbers and their shrill, badly made-up molls, it confirmed what “Gone Baby Gone” had announced: that its actor-maker is actually a gifted director, capable of infusing commercial filmmaking with a quiet, unshowy intelligence.
As with “13 Assassins,” much of the beauty here lay in the details: the way the robbers, in the midst of their first hold-up, microwaved the hard drives of the bank’s security cameras. Or the bleach they splashed over every surface in their wake, scouring any trace of fingerprints or DNA from the crime-scene. Affleck’s character was interesting, too: an essentially decent guy, aware of his need to improve himself, yet unable to stop himself from doing every shitty thing his upbringing and his nature conspired to make him do. In what appeared to be a tip of the hat to Michael Mann's “Heat”, he was set against his antithesis: an FBI agent of unwavering moral rectitude, played by “Mad Men”’s Jon Hamm. Whose performance here, and whose popularity at the subsequent press conference, served notice that he’s well on his way to becoming the major Hollywood star he deserves to be. (Ironically, until “The Town,” the best American thing I’d watched in Venice had been episode seven of this season’s “Mad Men” – “The Suitcase” – back in my hotel on Monday night.)
As such – and like the Miike – it achieved a difficult thing, honoring the various conventions that constitute a genre, without treating them like hackneyed clichés. “You know what's funny?” a friend remarked on the way out. “If this had Clint Eastwood’s name on it, every critic in America would be calling it a masterpiece.”
He was right; far too many critics have a tendency to respond, tail wagging, to the name on the tin, rather than the work on the screen. In fact I think it’s better than the recent Eastwood’s: brisker, less stiffly concerned with its own achievement and legacy. You’d call it a strong journeyman effort, were it not for the many themes and motifs it shared with his debut – and not just the Boston setting (evoked as meticulously as you’d expect), but the fascination with absent or inattentive mothers, with broken families and ruined fathers and the at-times almost intolerable burden of male friendship. An assured and coherent storyteller, Affleck displays a deep interest in social determinants, an almost 19th-century belief in character-as-destiny, and an apparent distaste for overstatement. Frankly, Hollywood could use more of him.
My friend and colleague Leslie Felperin nailed the Vincent Gallo feature in her Variety review, I think, when she noted that it ultimately satisfied no one: neither his many detractors (for whom it wasn't terrible enough to be dismissed as a fiasco) nor his smaller band of supporters (for whom it wasn't excellent enough to justify what has been an often thankless faith).
For the record, I consider myself among the latter group. Gallo may be a poseur and a publicity-seeker, but he arrived in Venice with two excellent films to his name. (Long before the critical tide turned in his favour, Manohla Dargis and I were about the only two people at Cannes who admired "The Brown Bunny" on its premiere, in its original cut – a judgment that proved, in the words one former friend, that I "knew nothing whatsoever about cinema.") He is a talent, despite his neuroses and bullshit. But his inability to play well with others prevents him from accepting the good advice that might curb his excesses.
Compared to those earlier features, "Promises Written In Water" felt thin and oddly half-hearted. Ostensibly a meditation on bereavement, it actually seemed even more narcissistic than his earlier work; suffice it to say, when Gallo holds the screen, no other actor matters, and his female co-star was often reduced to a fleeting, barely-glimpsed presence. Seemingly influenced by Warhol, and shot in a grainy B&W reminiscent of the early 1960s, it contained a handful of interesting individual shots – a woman dancing in a bare room; her face, later, turned in profile – among long scenes of pointless duration. But by far its most interesting feature was its willingness to play with dialogue, with Gallo repeating the same phrases, with minute variations, up to a half-dozen times, as if giving an editor various line-readings from which to select. Except that Gallo is his own editor, and will not cut anything. With the effect that the device that reeked less of attempted naturalism, than some William S. Burroughs-like cut-up, draining the words of any sense or purpose. Perhaps that was the point: the suggestion that, before a grief as powerful as this one, language itself becomes meaningless, mere sound.
But then, what would I know? Another friend forwarded me the following, from Gallo's own website: "Vincent Gallo has forever rejected any explanation of the concept, story, process, or rumors surrounding the making of his new film, stating, 'None of it would fit easily into tabloid format, and so writers and journalists would be forced into simplistic interpretations to avoid their own shortcomings and the shortcomings of the press in general.'” Cheers, Vinnie G. We'd just watched his short, "The Agent", a companion-piece of sorts to the feature, shot by the same cameraman, on the same stock, and starring Sage Stallone (who'd cameoed in "Promises") as a Hollywood agent conducting a one-sided conversation with his client (guess who!), a set-up that encouraged him to utter the same word-soup, with phrases like "You're a punk," "They want you," "You should be happy," and "What else can you do?" materializing in various combinations, more or less at random.
I liked it, liked its provocation and its aesthetic – and that affection turned to flat-out love when the end-title screen came up, noting that the film was (and I quote) "bought to you by the Gray Daisy Films Foundation. A viewer-supported organization dedicated to the advancement of outspoken Caucasian non-Jewish heterosexual good-looking male filmmakers and movie stars", which "needs your support to continue bringing you high-quality films." Below this text was an address for donations.
The message stayed onscreen for two full minutes. Further proof (as if any were needed) that Gallo belabors his punchlines, but also a hint that there might be slightly more self-knowledge there than many give him credit for.
What else to say? It was, in all, an extraordinarily good year, here in Venice. There was "Road to Nowhere", and "News From Nowhere" – and "Somewhere". There was "Black Venus" (excellent, punishing, reminiscent at times of Pasolini's "Salo") and "Black Swan", "The Black Sheep" and "Black Ocean". There was "Norwegian Wood", which for me elicited the single funniest line of the festival, when someone at dinner one night mentioned its title, and British critic Damon Wise remarked, calmly, "Isn't it good?" There was “Barney’s Version”, boasting superb performances from Paul Giamatti and Rosamund Pike, and “I’m Still Here” – which I didn’t bother to catch, having no interest whatever in l’affaire Joaquin, only to later regret missing. There were few truly awful films, and some very, very fine ones. Unique in recent memory, this year’s festival gave the impression of being over all too soon.