TIFF 2019: We bid farewell to an old acquaintance

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      In retrospect, things started out well. Or rather, they kept starting out well. TIFF kicked off for me with the First Nations zombie movie Blood Quantum, but the moment that I walked out of the theater, I ejected it from my consciousness like a spent shotgun cartridge (though one dumbfounding line—delivered with perfect seriousness—will rent a room in my memory palace for eternity: “They look at me like my vagina is Pandora’s box!”)

      So I’m going to pretend that the festival began with my second movie, Diao Yinan’s The Wild Goose Lake, which does indeed start out well. It set a clearer precedent for what was to come, in any case.

      The opening section of the film—in which worn but well-oiled noir machinery kicks into gear with a pleasing whir—aims to supply nothing more than the most basic cinematic pleasures: light (a hotel room glows violet under a neon sign and moped headlamps punch electric holes in the dark); sound (a gang brawl is scored to the clangor of metal chairs wielded as weapons); and movement (people keep entering from the side of the frame at strange, invigorating angles).

      Diao delivers. It helps that he likes stories and archetypes that are so familiar as to require no psychological or sociological adornment.

      Unfortunately, at some point Diao decided that unadorned indulgence was not enough, and his film eventually strains for seriousness. The story, which is elemental in concept, grows unwieldy as Diao widens his net to include the particulars of the local blackmarket economy, an entire police battalion, and—if the film’s boosters are to be believed—the whole of Chinese society. Diao’s unusual staging choices do keep this noir contraption humming along for a while, and the expanded canvas gives him the opportunity to orchestrate a few inventive crowd scenes.

      My favorite: a multiparty cat-and-mouse game where the hunters give chase in light-up tennis shoes.

      But the eccentric mise-en-scene scrambles important plot information just as often as it transmits it with ingenuity. In other words, Diao is a less sophisticated storyteller than he is a stylist, and the narrative convolutions eventually throw a wrench in things. The film breaks down as it approaches its end, and the final beat, which should register with the emphatic force of a full stop, instead trails off like an ellipsis.

      Oliver Laxe’s Fire Will Come lays out its trajectory right there in the title, so there really shouldn’t be room for error.

      Alas, I found myself shocked when the film called it quits. I suppose that’s a compliment, in some sense: from its opening sequence—which turns nighttime lumber-jacking into a primeval, mystic son et lumière show—I found myself hypnotized by Laxe’s formal decisions, and I let the film lead me where it may. Though let’s be clear: Laxe does not possess a novel aesthetic program, mesmerizing because it is shiny and new.

      On the contrary, his interests (16mm film grain; dreamy cause and effect; long walks in the forest) are widely shared by his peers. Probably a half dozen directors at TIFF reached for the same toolkit. Fire Will Come just happens to be the most effective movie of the bunch, by a wide margin.

      Endless Night, The Fever, and Seven Years in May failed to cast any spell whatsoever, but Laxe guided me to the promised conflagration in a trance, with little more than some formal sleights of hand.

      Given the thinness of the scenario (a stoic, unreadable arsonist is released from prison, returns home to Galicia, and starts the eponymous fire—or maybe he doesn’t) and the fact I reversed engineered these particular magic tricks long ago, that’s some kind of accomplishment. But when the flames die down and daylight breaks, Laxe has no plan for what remains in the ash. Fire Will Come—like a lot of movies this year—just shrugs and gives up.

      It’s probably a fool’s errand to concoct a unified theory that explains why so many things kept falling apart in the final stretch.

      But, inasmuch as one can generalize about movies made in disparate production environments, with distinct funding streams and exhibition demands, and defined by the caprices of wildly different artists—which is to say, not much—I might offer the theory that this generation of talents broadly misreads their artistic forerunners. They perceive structural exactitude but little narrative rigor in films signed by their most admired directors, who they are clearly seeking to emulate. In reality, someone like Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who goes by Joe, for short) makes movies that reject storytelling only superficially. His free-floating languors would quickly fall to earth without a tightly woven narrative structure to keep them aloft, offering flexible but firm support—hammock cinema? You heard it here first.

      Case in point: when Apichatpong tries his hand at avant-garde shorts and ventures forth without a net, he proves a far more middling filmmaker than when he’s working from his own feature-length scripts, which are secretly among the 21st century’s best. (2018’s Blue is the exception that proves the rule: it’s an experimental film, yes, and a good one, but it also has a better set-up and a more elegantly deployed payoff than most narrative movies from last year—or any year, really).

      Maybe young filmmakers are only watching his shorts. Regardless, Apichatpong casts a long shadow over TIFF’s 2019 slate, so much so that I’m now convinced that we’re in the middle of an arthouse paradigm shift: it’s no longer fashionable to imitate towering '90s figures like Kiarostami, Hou, and Haneke; all the cool kids want to be Joe. That’s tough. Based on the evidence at hand, Joe movies are difficult to make. They demand more than grainy film stock and some lush woodlands (and a solitary man to wander around in them) in order to work. They need a writer’s mind, in addition to a cinematographer’s eye.

      In the very least, they require that the forest peregrinations arrive at a final destination, eventually. Joe makes things look too easy.

      Despite encountering him everywhere at the festival, Joe did not—much to my chagrin—put out a movie this year. And so as much as I’d like to close this thing out with a masterpiece, to tell you that The State of Cinema is Strong, we’ll have to settle for a different terminus altogether

      The last film I saw at TIFF was, appropriately, Terminal Sud, which I suppose I should describe as a thriller, though it does nothing to earn such a worthy appellation.

      Oliver Laxe had—by my count—no fewer than three tricks up his sleeve. Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche knows just one: if Terminal Sud manages to quicken the pulse, it’s only because the director amplifies every auditory detail to ear-shattering decibel levels. Pistol shots, interrogator’s slaps, and dread midnight knocks on the door boom like explosions on the soundtrack and send the heart racing for one second, maybe two. The other 96 minutes are one long flatline.

      Okay, this is not the ideal point of departure, and while I guess I have to disembark somewhere, I’d rather not get off here. With a little knowing perversity, I’d like to propose that we end these TIFF dispatches not with a movie, but with a book

      No one ever reads a book at a film festival, and yet everyone brings one. It serves a purely totemic function: the book stays snug in the messenger bag or the purse, unopened and unread, but it promises something that no movie can offer: an escape from this veil of images.

      My chosen totem was a yellowing paperback copy of Sir William by one David Derek Stacton, an unjustly forgotten American novelist, poet, and historian.

      Naturally, I never touched it.

      I did, however, dutifully lug it around between screenings, and having it always nearby sent my mind wandering over to another Stacton work, Old Acquaintance, a novel that is, not coincidentally, set at a film festival. 

      Old Acquaintance follows Lotte—who bears an unmistakable resemblance to Marlene Dietrich—as she travels to some fictional movie-gathering in Luxembourg to present some made-up film award. While there, she runs into Charlie, the old friend of the title, a middle-aged writer of medium talent, a bon vivant, and Lotte’s public paramour—I say public because Charlie is, as Stacton was, an out gay man. And thus Charlie is more Lotte’s beard than she is his: this aging movie star enjoys nothing more than her alone time, but she has to put on a good show for the cameras.

      Charlie savors solitude in equal measure (and, in his younger days, cut a dashing figure on the tabloid covers) so he’s the perfect periodic companion, entering Lotte’s life only a few times a year, and all the more valuable for it. Their seasonal friendship will surely look familiar to anyone whose cherished rendezvous are determined by the annual film festival calendar.

      Stacton capitalizes on the setting—and Charlie’s obligations as a juror—to take some jabs at the international film festival as an institution, which even in 1962 looked rather hidebound. After watching so many mediocre movies over the last week and a half, Stacton cuts a little close to the bone: “It was ugly. It was boring. It would probably get the prize.”

      Film festivals plus ça change.

      But Charlie and Lotte relish their brief encounters, even if—or maybe precisely because—they experience them once a year between screenings of dull Japanese documentaries and Dutch films about folk customs and water birds. Perhaps, with age, we understand better how to make the most of fleeting relationships, with people and with art. In fact, we might even grow to prefer things that way. 

      As they once again say goodbye, Charlie asks Lotte a question that he’s been turning over in his head since they arrived in Luxembourg. He has Russian novels on the mind (he carts around a few editions of Gogol and Goncharov and Sologub whenever he travels, though, like the rest of us, he rarely cracks a spine) but it applies equally to movies—and to film festivals: “Did it ever occur to you that they always begin in the same set way...and instead of being annoyed, you couldn’t feel that the world was more comfortable. You know right where you are.”

      And then they separate.

      Our abiding loves don’t require a prolonged parting; it does no good to linger. Next year will be here soon enough.