The weather has cooled considerably in Toronto today, giving the air the cool, damp feeling I love. It’s clearly autumn now. The sun is setting a little bit earlier each day, the sweaters are coming out in force, and at the film festival, I had two solid days of screenings. Movie-wise, yesterday was one of the best days I have ever had at a film festival taking in three films. Today, four so far; I may be running to a 10:30pm screening to make it five, but it all depends on how fast I can crank out this blog post, so let’s get to it, shall we?
Shortbus by John Cameron Mitchell
It is hard to where to begin in describing John Cameron Mitchell’s long-awaited follow-up to Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but it may be best to begin with a superlative; I have never seen a more honest, true and loving portrayal of the search for fulfillment and intimacy in all of my years of watching film. Shortbus, named after the film’s fictional free-love salon, is a celebration of human freedom and the importance of community in terminating the inherent lonliness of sexual desire (or lack thereof), and I was absolutely blown away not only by the film’s graphic honesty (which, as established by the tour de force opening sequence, is as normal and loving as human sexuality should be), but by how the film works as a movie. Mitchell braids together the stories of the different people that come to the Shortbus salon for true sexual healing; Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee) is a couples counselor whose marriage has yet to produce an orgasm for her, James and Jamie (Paul Dawson and PJ DeBoy) are a gay couple looking to add something new to their five-year relationship and Severin (Lindsay Beamish) is a dominatrix unable to fill her own emotional needs. As the characters meet and help one another find some sort of happiness, the film takes on almost haunted feeling of loss that brings perfect weight to the sex, love and conversations on the screen.
Whole Lotta Love: John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus
Two stand-out sequences give Shortbus the depth and punch necessary to give meaning to the carnality, and both involve the character of Ceth (Jay Brannan), a handsome young musician who becomes a central part of James and Jamie’s troubled relationship. The first scene takes place between Ceth and an elderly man who turns out to be “the former mayor of New York”, a clear nod to real-life former Mayor Ed Koch. The two characters begin talking, and the Mayor delivers a glorious monologue that would not be out of place in a Tony Kushner play. The monologue scene is one of the film’s great wonders, an apology for Koch’s late action in the battle against AIDS, a plea for understanding in the face of fear, and a wonderfully humanizing act on Mitchell’s behalf that is the most gloriously perfect defense of New York City’s role as a beacon for true human freedom. When Ceth kisses the Mayor with great tenderness, he does so on our behalf. “New York City is permeable,” the Mayor says in the city’s defense, and truer words have never been spoken.
The second scene involves the nervous overture to three-way sex between James, Jamie and Ceth that drifts gently from uncertainty and excited sexual tension to a full-voiced chorus of the Star Spangled Banner in the middle of a precariously balanced sexual pyramid. The film’s complete comfort with gay and heterosexual sex and the human body in all of its shapes and sizes (all of the film’s sex is real, and it shows) will certainly turn a lot off potential viewers off in the prudish, shame-based culture that we live in, but don’t think that this isn’t Micthell’s precise and indisputable point for making this film; By embracing the normalcy of human sexuality and human bodies partaking in sexual pleasure, Shortbus is a clarion call for the freedom of human choice and, well, for humanism in general. As such, the film is perhaps the first in a new generation of films about human liberation and the establishment of tolerance, love, and self-fulfillment. It is also, and without question, one of the most honest films ever made about New York City in the post-9/11 world. 9/11 hovers over this film like it does over the lives of so many people in New York, a source of loss and uncertainty that manifests itself in a million unknowable, unspoken ways. By placing the locus of human liberation in New York City, Mitchell has forged a powerful act of reclamation for the City, taking back the moral high ground and seizing the very freedom that is so often used as grist for bullshit politicians who trade on fear and uncertainty, all the while hating us for who we are. I can’t possibly describe how good it felt to walk out of Shortbus; I felt alive, connected both to a larger community and to my own feelings and desires. There isn’t much more you can ask of art.
The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema by Sophie Fiennes
After Shortbus, I walked a few blocks to the Royal Ontario Museum for the only press screening of Sophie Fiennes’ three-part, 150-minute exploration of the film theory of Freudian scholar Slavoj Žižek (himself the subject of another recent documentary, Žižek). Fiennes and Žižek are a perfect match for each other, the former making the wonderful decision to place her subject on the sets and locations of the various films he is discussing and the latter an often hilarious, exhilarating and engrossing intellectual who isn’t afraid to show us the subconscious meanings of some of our favorite movies. The film is broken into three parts (probably for use as a television series), but stands as a singular argument about the way in which cinema formulates the models for human desire. If that sounds heady, well guess what; it is, and shamelessly so. To be in a movie theater, watching a tremendous documentary that takes film and ideas seriously is a huge pleasure, and I can’t think of a brisker, happier 150 minutes than those that I spent in The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema.
“The danger is not in taking cinema seriously,” Žižek states near the film’s end, “but in not taking the fiction of cinema seriously enough.” I couldn’t agree more. Breaking the film down into its three natural segments, we first have a discussion of the formal Freudian structures at work in film (Psycho, The Birds, The Marx Brothers, Charlie Chapin, and The Exorcist all play important roles) from the manifestation of the id, ego and superego in the physical structure of Norman Bates’ home (moving his mother from the upstairs/superego into the cellar/id) and The Marx Brothers (Groucho/superego, Chico/ego, Harpo/id) to the dismebodiment of the voice in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Friedken’s The Exorcist, Žižek lays our his strategy in clear terms; Things are what they seem in the movies, we must simply recognize them for what they are.
The Maestro: Slavoj Žižek
The second episode is dedicated to sex and repression (which, having just seen Shortbus had my brain spinning) and was heavily focused on the work of David Lynch and on Hitchcock’s Vertigo. This section articulated Lynch’s structural and thematic concerns with such clarity, I believe Žižek may be the definitive Lynchian scholar. Finally, Žižek tackles Anxiety and Fear, the “only authentic emotion and human motivation.” Here again is Lynch, joined by Alien Resurrection, Hitchcock, etc. The film’s ideas and Žižek’s delivery would certainly stand alone as a wonderful lesson in film theory, but it is Sophie Fiennes who takes Žižek’s ideas and brings them to life, not only with an amazing array of delicious film clips (wonderfully edited to illustrate Žižek’s points), but by putting Žižek in the locations and on the sets of the films themselves. It is these moments that make The Pervert’s Guide To Cinema more than a simple lecture by a fascinating Professor, turning the film into a wonderful piece of cinema in its own right. The sets and locations include the Golden Gate Bridge, the sets of Blue Velvet,Psycho, The Matrix and The Conversation, the small motor boat in The Birds and on and on and on. This is the movie I want all of my friends and loved ones to see, if only they can come to know the pleasures of caring deeply about movies, of thinking deeply about them. So much fun! It demands to be seen on a big screen and I hope that some brave company picks this film up and gives it a full theatrical release, because as a great piece of cinema, it deserves its own stay in a theater. I think it would do very well among cinephiles and movie-lovers everywhere; this movie is for us.
Brand Upon the Brain! by Guy Maddin
Out of my seat at the Royal Ontario Museum, I needed a nice walk after sitting for 2.5 hours, so I headed down to the Elgin Theater for Guy Maddin’s world premiere and only screening of his Freudian fever dream, Brand Upon The Brain!. The Elgin is a gorgeous space, probably 1700+ seats with gilded ceilings; it felt like being in an ancient movie palace. Back story; Brand Upon The Brain! is a silent film, presented with a 17-piece ensemble from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra playing a score by Jason Staczek, two foley artists providing sound effects, a narrator and a vocalist. The screening had a bumpy start as the projectionist skipped the very beginning of the film (and screwed the music cue), so we rewound and began again without a hitch this time. The film is broken into twelve chapters, and tells the story of Guy, a man making a return to his boyhood home (a lighthouse on a remote island), which he tries to repair with white paint. As his brush slathers the walls, Guy is overwhelmed by the Proustian impulse and is swept back to when he was a young boy living with his all-seeing mother, mad-scientist father, and sexually curious older sister named Sis. Mother runs an orphanage in the family lighthouse, while father conducts secret experiments in the basement, having already invented a phonograph-like device which allows the family to communicate over great distances (providing their emotional urgency is true enough to make their message clear). While the orphans participate in brutal rituals lead by the oldest orphan, Savage Tom, the young Guy falls in love Wendy Hale, one half of a brother/sister dectective duo. Wendy has other plans though and, having fallen for Sis, dresses as her own brother Chance Hale and seduces Sis while trying to uncover the mysterious goings on in the lighthouse.
What Would Mother Say?: Guy Maddin’s Brand Upon The Brain!
Having just sat through a 2.5 hour film on Freudian interpretations of cinema, it was not hard to be completely floored by one of the most definitively personal, touching, and hilarious examples of Freudian self-analysis ever comitted to celluloid. Maddin’s film is at once extremely personal and incredibly accessible, retaining both the wit and unique vision of his previous films but somehow transcending his earlier work. This is easily my favorite of his movies, and I know that this is largely due to the performance of both the foley artists (who were precise and excellent throughout) and Jason Staczek’s awe-inspiring score. I loved the music so much, and it was performed so beautifully, I cannot possibly imagine the film without it. I know there are those who think silents should stay silent, but the foley work and the score created a magical environment for film viewing. I heard a rumor that there may be a screening added to the New York Film Festival where I would happily see the film again. The impact of the score and sound effects cannot be underestimated, but it is the happy combination of all of the cinmatic elements, broken apart and spread across the theater (film beautifully projected, foley in the corner, orchestra under the screen) that created something wonderful.
That said, there was a technical problem with the narration where, from what I could gather from my seat in the balcony, the copy of the film running with narration subtitles from which the narrator was performing froze up, and despite attempts to get him back on track with a paper script, he was unable to synch his narration to the film and ended up (and this is pure speculation) skipping enormous chunks of the narrative. Maddin himself was seated in the narrator’s balcony, encouraging him and lending help in tracking the script, but despite a few lines salvaged here and there, the final 2/3 of the film was not really narrated. Not that the film needed it, it was truly great on its own. Still, I have a suspicion that a fully realized performance has not been executed in public, and I look forward to the possibility of another screening, where the narration is presented in its entirety. Again, I am speculating, but watching the flurry of activity in the narrator’s balcony (and noting the vast decrease in narration in the final 2/3), I feel safe in saying that something went afowl, but it in no way hindered my appreciation of the final film. If you are within a 500-mile radius of a performance of this film, run, don’t walk.
Paris, Je’Taime by Various
I think it is safe to say that my obsession with Paris (having never been) is officially well-documented, so as a cinematic voyeur of the City of Lights, I have no way to judge the relationship between reality and the small, beautiful films that populate Paris Je’Taime. What I can say is that, in the grand tradition of one of the most important locales in the history of cinema, Paris Je’Taime is a near-perfect rendering of the cinematic idea of Paris, which is to say the subject of the film is perhaps not the city itself, but the history of the city’s cinematic representation. As such, I’ve fallen in love again.
Paris Je’Taime is not simply a film, but instead a collection of films by 18 Directors that tackle the theme of love in each of Paris’ individual neighborhoods. In any endeavor of this nature, some films work better than others, but Paris Je’Taime has about a 90% success rate and is a near-perfect love-letter to the city. There are many standout scenes in the film, but for me, none surpasses Nobuhiro Suwa’s heartwrenching Place des Victoires. The film, stylistically at a far remove from the stillness of A Perfect Couple (which I played at this year’s Sarasota Film Festival and still ranks as one of the best unseen films in years), tells the story of a mother (Juliette Binoche) whose young son has recently died and for whom she cannot stop mourning. One night, following the child’s voice into the street, she is met by a cowboy (Willem Dafoe), once the fantasy object of her son, now granting her her own dream of being reunited with him. As a portrait of grief and longing, it is beautifully executed and haunting, and was my favorite in the film.
Other standouts include Joel and Ethan Cohen’s Tuileries, starring Steve Buscemi as a tourist beseiged by the cruelties of the natives, Tom Tykwer’s lovely Faubourg Saint-Denis, starring Natalie Portman (who I am loving more and more as I watch her develop into a truly amazing actress) and Melchior Beslan. Knowing no inside information, this film might be read as a eulogy for the Director’s own relationship with the actress Franke Potente, but again, I’m speculating. Oliver Schmitz’s fine Place des Fêtes shows us the tragic death of a Nigerian immigrant (beautifully played by Seydou Boro), Alexander Payne’s 14th arrondissement which stars Margo Martindale as a single woman from Denver, narrating in French with a hilarious, over-the-top American accent, who looks to discover romance and her own happiness, and finally, the segment that literally brought me to tears, Gérard Depardieu and Frédéric Auburtin’s Quartier Latin, starring a radiant Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara as a divorcing couple who are looking to end things amicably. Watching the two actors on screen together, discussing the end of things, life and death and children, well, it was too much for me; the ghost of John Cassavetes seemed to be at the table with them, smiling that huge grin. I lost it for a minute. The sequence was, in that moment, a true through-the-looking-glass moment, holding the image of the past and a future where cinema may not promise us another pair of eyes like Rowland’s, another cocktail soaked voice like Gazzara’s. To see them together again, to see the lovely kiss that time has left on both of their faces; it was beautiful. I miss moments like this, and I was surprised at the depth of feeling this short, witty exchange inspired in me.
I understand that there will are plans to make this a series of films and that New York City is next, and I have the perfect film idea for Park Slope… I don’t know who to pitch this one to, seeing as I am no Nobuhiro Suwa (ha!), but I would kill to make a film for New York Je’Taime. In the meantime, if someone doesn’t call John Sloss at Cinetic and grab this movie for American distribution, there is something deeply wrong with American distribution. Paris Je’Taime is an absolute must for French film fans.
Building A Broken Mousetrap, NYC Weights and Measures, and Blessed Are The Dreams Of Men by Jem Cohen
I love Jem Cohen’s films (we had Chain at the 2004 Sarasota Film Festival) and consider Instrument to be the best rock and roll film of all time. Maybe I should change that to considered it the greatest, because having seen today’s press screening of Building A Broken Mousetrap, Cohen’s new film documenting a 2004 performance by Dutch band The Exat New York’ City’s Knitting Factory, I may have to rethink everything. Cohen brings his inimitable style to the performance, cutting between The Ex’s performance and his signature shots of urban exteriors, commerical space, and people passing through the unflinching New York City landscape. Like his work in Instrument, Cohen’s handheld, gorgeous photography immediately captures the brilliance of The Ex’s performance while at the same time, through his kinetic editing, brings a focus and shape to the beautiful noise being produced by the band. And what a noise it is; one of the most incredible performances by a band that has ever been captured on film.
During the propulsive set, I found myself almost being pulled from my seat by the force of the music, and here again, the big screen makes a tremendous difference; the projectionist had the volume way up, the digital projection system looked great and I was blown away. The two shorter pieces that preceded the feature, NYC Weights and Measures, and Blessed Are The Dreams Of Men were both lovely meditations on the view from a moving train, with droning scores that perfectly complimented Cohen’s images, but neither was adequate preparation for Building A Broken Mousetrap. Or maybe I should say, their moving images laid the foundation for the propulsive show that lay ahead. I read that Mousetrap will be released on DVD soon, but fuck that; if I can get my hands on a Hi-Def print, I am bringing this film to my festival, DVD or no DVD. This needs to rock in a theater, and it needs to be seen by as many human eyes as possible. I loved this movie deeply. Looking at the band’s tour schedule, I see they are playing in Chicago as I type. A cruel joke! Why am I not there for the show?
It is strange to re-read this now and too see so many superlatives and so much happiness, but I have to admit, I did the right thing by taking some time off this summer and refreshing my perspective. The past few days have been a joy, and I feel open to film in a new way, or maybe a renewed way. Not everything I’ve seen has been great, but who cares? I have been knocked flat by some great movies, by great ideas, and feel re-connected to cinema in a way that makes me hopeful not only for movies, but for change and a new, heightened place for art and ideas in the world. I had missed this sense of hope and to have it restored? Yes. Bed now (missed that movie!), and more soon.