Culture

Film & Television

Toronto International Film Festival 2018 (part two)

By Shane Danielsen
The ordinary and the extraordinary at this year’s event, and the perils of criticism

Whenever friends express envy that I’m at a film festival, I remind them that much of what I’m seeing is ordinary or disappointing, quite a bit of it bad, and some of it actively terrible, a waste of time that might be better spent doing almost anything else.

It’s my time to waste, of course, and there are certainly compensations: catching up with the half-dozen or so colleagues whose company I love, the long, funny, argumentative dinners, the late nights in hotel bars and at awful parties like something out of Arthur Koestler’s novel The Call Girls. And, lest we forget, the pulse-quickening thrill (still undiminished for me, after some 28 years) of encountering something truly remarkable onscreen.

But often, yeah, it’s a slog.

To these complaints must now be added the weary forbearance of hysteria, an increasingly common component of criticism today. The extravagant flattery. The wildly inflated claims. The attention-seeking, the logrolling. The sycophancy. Perhaps I’m just getting older and grouchier, but the noise of many of my peers threatens more and more to drown out the very work they’re supposed to be assessing. You’d almost think the reviews matter as much as the movies that inspire them. (Spoiler alert: they don’t.)

For this, as for so much else in this brave new world, I blame Twitter. Which has not only degraded our discourse, served as a bully pulpit for the ignorant, and made us broadly, perceptibly dumber, but has also pushed criticism – of films, in particular – into a dangerous dialectic. Things, increasingly, are either INCREDIBLY AWESOME or WORTHLESS BULLSHIT. Five stars or one star, magnificent or pitiful – because who cares, really, about the two- or three-star movie? It excites no passions. It doesn’t commend itself to memory. It certainly garners no retweets – and thus fails the metric by which many critics today consider themselves measured.

Whenever I see a five-star review, I think: so you’re telling me that this film is as good as The Rules of the Game, or Tokyo Story, or The Godfather? Seriously? A critic actually boasted recently of having given three five-star reviews in a row at Venice last month. I would say to that critic: calm the fuck down. (In fact, I did say just that, to that very critic, in May, at a group dinner on the last night in Cannes. He seemed chagrined at the time, but clearly the message didn’t stick.)

Underlying all this is a grim but unavoidable fact: that, far from driving the conversation, as they did in the 1960s and ’70s, critics are in fact increasingly redundant. However eloquent I may wax in my reviews, I can’t inspire many people to go see something I love – and nor can colleagues at far more prominent publications. But awareness of the essential futility of one’s profession is a hard thing to bear. And the flashbulb glare of a major festival offers film critics the chance to redress a multitude of indignities, since it’s the one opportunity they have to put a thumb on the scales, even for an instant. Their review (or, more often, their tweeted aperçu) might actually exert some influence upon certain sales agents, distributors, programmers. It might actually matter.

At Cannes this is especially noticeable – one could drown, there, in waves of hyperbole. But Toronto 2018, too, had its share of World Premieres, and the showboating was the same.

Thus, Claire Denis’ latest feature, the SF drama High Life, was met with a blizzard of lofty claims. One US critic tweeted, “It takes roughly one shot of this film to know you’re in the hands of a master; maybe 30 minutes to realize you’re watching a landmark movie; and the remainder to confirm you’ve experienced a visionary piece of cinema.” That was, like, 20 minutes after the screening.

For the record, there’s no bigger Claire Denis fan than me. I’ve curated two retrospectives of her work to date, and consider her, along with Hou Hsiao-hsien, to be the greatest filmmaker working today. Consequently, High Life was by some measure the film I was most looking forward to at Toronto.

But it proved a baffling, doggedly contrarian work, even by this filmmaker’s standards – determined to subvert every expectation and evade easy analysis. I defy any viewer, however familiar with her oeuvre, to arrive at a conclusive judgement as to its worth after a single viewing, much less within a half-hour.

So, absent the urgent deadline of a trade mag or newspaper, why not say nothing, at least for a while? Why not take a few hours – or, god forbid, even a few days – to contemplate it, reflect upon it, and then offer a measured rather than a reflexive response? Why not be a critic, in short, and not a cheerleader? All red meat to one’s followers, sure – but at what cost to the works you champion? Which inevitably fail to live up, on release weeks or months later, to the expectations fostered by those itchy-trigger-finger responses.

The result, of course, is that critics then aren’t taken seriously – Jesus, viewers think, what was that guy on? – which means a further diminution of their authority. Cue more rabid overstatement … and so on, and so on. A loud, shrill spiral into irrelevance.

Do I sound angry? I’m not – I’m just tired. Tired of gushing overstatement instead of reasoned appraisal. I know movies are supposed to make us feel; I get that. And criticism is a purely subjective activity: I’ve tried to hammer home that very point in my writing for this magazine. But a little more thought, and a lot less about our “feelings”, might improve our movie-going – and perhaps even our culture.

 


So far, my feeling (ha!) about High Life is that it’s good, but not great. Despite the torrents of praise engulfing it, I can’t assert with confidence that it ranks among Denis’ greatest works – alongside classics like White Material or I Can’t Sleep, or her masterpiece, 1999’s breathtaking Beau travail. Second-tier Denis is of course better – more audacious, imaginative, finely crafted – than most people’s tip-top best. And this one might yet grow in my estimation, like L’Intrus back in 2004. But I need to see it again … and maybe one more time after that. I want to think about it, live with it; I need time.

I found Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma (winner of the Golden Lion at Venice) powerful and resonant. A domestic drama about an upper-middle-class Mexican family, seen through the eyes of their maid, it proved that its director (who dispensed with his usual cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, to shoot this film himself, in lustrous monochrome) excels not only at the virtuosic set pieces that made his reputation, in films like Gravity and the peerless Children of Men, but also at fine-grained observational detail and character work. The most talented of his countrymen, far outstripping Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu, Cuarón is a consummate filmmaker.

But, to my surprise, I felt badly let down by If Beale Street Could Talk, the James Baldwin adaptation from Barry Jenkins, whose Moonlight was by far my favourite film of 2016. Later, while sitting at a pub with my agent, I was approached by a fellow critic who wanted to know what I’d made of it. When I said I’d been disappointed, she was aghast – couldn’t I see that it singlehandedly redressed a century of onscreen under-representation? That it reclaimed an entire genre – the “Hollywood” love story – for black actors and audiences?

Of course I could. I’d understood its strategy within the first ten minutes – what else was the point of those long, gloriously lit close-ups? But it could do that and simultaneously be a little boring. Which is to say, it could work as a socio-cultural document but also fail as a narrative. (As ever, I’m speaking subjectively: I wasn’t moved, because I found the storytelling schematic. Others absolutely were.)

For me, the problem lies in the central relationship. They’re dull as dishwater, a couple too idealised and perfect to ever feel real, much less compelling. Positive representation rarely results in good art, because it flattens complexity, effaces contradiction and nuance, smooths off all the nettlesome, un-virtuous elements that make a character compelling. As a result, the camera’s rapt contemplation of these beautiful ciphers begins to feel listless in a way that Moonlight never did. (Its hero, “Little”/“Black”, was nothing but nuance and contradictions.) At 119 minutes, this one drags badly: there’s about 20 minutes of actual plot and easily twice that of wide-eyed adoration; and one sequence, an inter-family argument, plays alarmingly like a Tyler Perry flick. It felt suspiciously like a movie designed to make white liberal viewers feel better, and I found myself wondering how black audiences would respond to it. With a shrug, I suspect.

Finally, something extraordinary. Alex Ross Perry’s latest, the regrettably titled Her Smell, set in a ’90s alt-rock milieu and detailing the fall and rise of fictional singer-songwriter Becky Something (Elisabeth Moss), leader of the all-female rock band Something She.

I go up and down on Ross Perry’s films: Listen Up Philip was aggravating but whip-smart, and as good a “literary” film as New York has produced in decades. Queen of Earth was spooky and mesmerising. But the last one – Golden Exits – was a depiction of Brooklyn solipsism that didn’t seem, somehow, in on its own joke.

This one, at 135 minutes Perry’s longest film to date, seems a deeper achievement than any of those. Its first half finds Becky in the full mania of stardom – “a walking study in demonology” as another, not-dissimilar real-life monster once put it. It’s a tough sit: hectic and relentless, packed with hyper-literate, occasionally quasi-Shakespearian dialogue (my favourite line, as Becky ushers another woman through a doorway: “Inward, ho!”), and set to some truly extraordinary sound design, its looped drones and muffled, almost subliminal pounding reminiscent of late-period Throbbing Gristle. (Or Gaspar Noé, come to think of it.) But Moss is consistently spellbinding, all raw nerves and alternating weathers, ping-ponging between contempt, self-pity, heedless joy and bitter venom. Watching, your sympathies are constantly being recalibrated. Is she a genius? An addict? An idiot savant? Is she cruel or kind?

At one point, creatively blocked, unable to finish her album, she invites another, younger all-female band (who idolise her) into the studio, and urges them to play one of their songs for her. She watches, listens: they’re good – as good as she used to be, in fact. And as they play she smiles, gazing for a moment at a future in which she has no place. My colleague Wendy Ide noted afterwards that it looked like her skin was being peeled off her skull.

But then we cut to the next chapter, four years later. Something She has broken up, and Becky is trying to piece her life back together, living in a large country house that she owns for the moment but might soon lose to debtors. She’s visited by her ex (Dan Stevens) – and by her daughter, now seven, and old enough to ask her long-lost mother some questions. The first of these turns out to be, “Will you play me a song?” Becky’s response (prefaced with a wry “This next one’s a cover”) is to sing her Bryan Adams’ “Heaven” – which I never realised, until the Bryan Adams was taken out of it, is actually a fantastic song. And Moss’s rendition is un-ironic, understated, heartbreaking.

From this moment until the end – and it finishes on an absolutely perfect line – the movie doesn’t put a foot wrong. Even Cara Delevingne, a dependably terrible actor, is solid here. Moss’s talent, vast as the ocean, is clearly capable of lifting every craft around her.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

Her Smell. Image courtesy of TIFF

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