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Toronto International Film Festival 2011: A Mysterious World and Melancholia

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Toronto International Film Festival 2011: A Mysterious World and Melancholia

A deliberately paced study in sublime defeatism that shuttles easily between deadpan humor and witty pathos, Rodrigo Moreno’s A Mysterious World might be the most auteur-y object to emerge from the Toronto International Film Festival’s “City to City” Buenos Aires-themed program. Expanding on—and more expediently dramatizing—the philosophy of monotony that characterizes his earlier film El Custodio, Moreno wanders the streets, apartments, and rural suburban roads around the Argentine metropolis by way of a scrawny flaneur protagonist, Boris (Esteban Bigliardi), who’s ejected from his terminally bored girlfriend’s loft in the daintily circuitous dialogue of the opening sequence. Just barely responding to his newfound adrift-ness, Boris checks into a hotel, allows himself to be conned into buying a broken-down French car, interpolates cigarette drags into his daily abs work-out, feasts on white bread topped with ketchup and mustard, and follows women compulsively, for miles, without any recognizably lecherous intentions. The camera lopingly observes Boris through these exploits, frequently forcing us to identify with his stultifying nervousness by mimicking his immobility and aimless turns of the head via stable eye line shots and unhurried pans.

There’s a sense of volatile, cavalier openness to this milieu that can be as comforting as it is victimizing, sometimes within the same gesture: Guests at a party revel in the use of their host’s toothbrush, and when Boris ferries to Uruguay to meet some fairly new acquaintances for a holiday, he’s either callously or inadvertently left stranded at the docks and turns back home. But the protagonist’s passive, gangly masculinity occasionally takes advantage of people as well, despite its lack of explicitly parasitic intentions. When Boris’s car breaks down on the road, he dazedly follows the percussive clucking of a nearby bird while a helpful, passing motorist, frustrated with his lassitude, siphons gas for him. It’s remarkable that by the slightly forced symmetry of the film’s close we feel a touching equilibrium has been established between giving and taking, particularly by way of an extended sequence with a mechanic that lazily and warmly essays a depiction of genuine reciprocity. Buenos Aires is a city that pats you on the back while it’s picking your pocket.

I had a discussion with critic Adam Nayman mere hours after being emotionally disintegrated by Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and became enticed by a reservation he voiced. “I get that Kirsten Dunst is Melancholia is Lars von Trier,” he pointed out, collapsing the film’s plodding transition from human representation to symbolic and its progenitor’s presumed relationship to both. “But what’s the stake? I already know Lars is depressed. What else is there?” A deceptively pragmatic retort, Nayman is less critiquing the redundancy of von Trier’s auteurism here than he is attempting a monstrously tidy, if implicit, definition of the utility of art. It’s fitting that a critic would make sense of this perennial controversy in terms of illumination; what good is a film, what good is a film review, that can teach us nothing? (“About what?” one might immediately ask. Answering “cinema” seems ignorantly conservative, while “anything” seems exasperatedly glib.)

We recognize films as personal objects. We use the word “personal” to issue a specific kind of praise that denotes a vague resonance. Movies are endowed with personality—the good ones, anyway—and exist at least in part as artifacts of the experience of their conception and production, just as they become empathic filters to which our subconscious fodder—desires, fears, memories, and pathologies—clings when we watch them. They represent the ineffable and provoke the ineffable. And when the nature of that elusive, unmentionable dyad aligns meaningfully, we are moved. But the connection we feel, with either the content on the screen or the author allegorically behind it, is always in a sense illusory due to this ineffability. The art object is a medium. It creates a partition between us and the archetypal artist’s intentionality, the soupily primordial reality of which can never be fully gleaned. The only thing we’re really able to see in the inky, seductively onyx-like surface of the art object is our own reflection, or even more typically, a self-distortion thereof that is usefully mistaken for an artist’s statement.

Melancholia does constitute a revelation of sorts, albeit one that does not means to teach nor disseminate any pearls of practical information, even ones that might foster its own accessibility. Just as Antichrist before it was an attempt to render and flail against—not, in my view, understand—the state of anxiety, its foolhardiness, and the pitiful ineffectualness of its treatments, Melancholia is first a portrait, then an allegory, of the depressive experience. Neatly preparing us for this aesthetic progression, a dramatically kinetic slow-motion overture spoils the entire film’s trajectory with striking images. Splayed hawks plummet about Kirsten Dunst’s torpid smile; Dunst again, in a wedding gown, pumps her legs through a verdant wilderness where thick, grey webs tangle and threaten her; a Myst-like sundial sits in the center of an ominously vacant and well-gardened courtyard.

As the narrative begins, we learn that this courtyard, and its palatial estate, belong to Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the sister of Justine (Dunst), and her self-satisfied and very wealthy husband John (Keifer Sutherland). In the bifurcated story’s first half, the estate hosts Justine’s wedding, a tan-hued, jump-cutty clashing of humor and snarling pathos. It becomes clear despite the function’s opulence, and moments of cute hilarity (Justine and her groom can’t get their stretch limo up the winding road that leads to the manor) that the bride is arbitrarily damaged and cannot be helped. Not by her drunk, cluelessly goofy father (John Hurt in a tragic smile of a cameo). Not by her average, lusty husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgård). Not by her obsessive, domineering boss (Stellan Skarsgård). Not by her icy, prune-y, attention-snatching mother (Charlotte Rampling). Not by the unspeakably dedicated wedding planner (Udo Kier) who averts his eyes from Justine after she wrecks with disappearances and arguments the masterpiece he’s curated. And not by her well-meaning sister Claire, whose intentions can only offer convalescence in the end.

I need not detail how my own abortive marriage, which similarly began with a ceremony of raw nerves at a wealthy relative’s home, seemed to signal the end of not just “my,” but “the” world. The destructive agent that continually threatened my well being, despite the clarity with which all could perceive its lumbering form, came inexplicably from within. The identical force that Justine more or less conjures, while deteriorating in the movie’s second half, is the planet Melancholia, the orbit of which is locked in a “dance of death” with Earth. Bookending the faux-academia of Antichrist’s “gynocide,” von Trier reveals this plot turn via entertainingly pseudo-astronomical data, some of which Claire locates via Google searches. Her husband John, a stargazing hobbyist, seems unworried. But the sterile, calmly blue orb floats closer and closer, robbing some of the earth’s atmosphere and causing meteorological disturbances. No one can alter its path. All they can do is observe, and hope.

Throughout, von Trier’s visual realization of the disorder is uncannily fluid—oscillating between hot, sickly yellows and saturnine blues, as well as handheld and steady camera angles, the film somehow simultaneously inhabits both the depressive’s perspective and that of the worried, shaking heads observing the depressive. And as with the more morbidly and raucously self-destructive Antichrist, the unassailability of these color schemes and movements—and of the final, astronomic peril—is likely to be taken by some as a resignation. But both films, particularly when taken as a diptych, are too convoluted to be boiled down to a single neurotic surrender. Full of distancing mechanisms and spookily cathartic dramaturgy, the movies read like the eloquent, fantasy-filled diary entries of a man determined to live despite relentless hounding by mental illness.

Psychotherapy discourages against conceptualizing anxiety and depression as sentient entities—and yet to conceive of them as immutably external and in control is as honest as it is terrifying. With Melancholia, von Trier argues just how swiftly and unchallenged utter fictions can move along a path of seemingly self-sufficient obliteration, and the universality of the annihilation is key: The Armageddon annuls the need to ponder suicide, even as it paradoxically represents that escape mechanism. In von Trier’s fantasy, Melancholia is destroyed too, and—also as in the denouement of Antichrist—the collision leaves nothing behind but stillness. Blissful, otherwise unattainable stillness that doesn’t wash over us but is drawn from us after we’re showered with planetary debris. Drawn from a strange, quiet place within that usually, cruelly, refuses to yield.

The Toronto International Film Festival ran from September 8—18.

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Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth

By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.

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That Was Something

Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcome dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.

For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.

Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.

Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.

Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.

Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:

In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.

In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.

Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:

I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?

The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.

Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.

Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.

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Blu-ray Review: Peppermint Soda Gets 2K Restoration from Cohen Media Group

Diane Kurys’s poignant debut powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth.

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Peppermint Soda
Photo: Cohen Media Group

Diane Kurys’s Peppermint Soda is like flipping through a young girl’s diary, capturing as it does snippets of the small-scale tragedies, amusing hijinks, and quotidian details that define the lives of two Parisian teenage sisters over the course of their 1963-to-‘64 school year. Through a delicate balancing of comedic and dramatic tones, Kurys’s debut film taps into the emotional insecurities and social turmoil that accompany the awkward biological developments of adolescence with a disarming sweetness and subtlety, lending even small moments a poignancy that shuns overt displays of sentimentality or nostalgia. As evidenced by the opening title card, in which Kurys dedicates the film to her sister “who has still hasn’t returned my orange sweater,” Peppermint Soda’s authenticity arises from its specificity, both in its characters’ tumultuous inner lives and the detailed rendering of their friends and teachers, as well as the classrooms within which they passed their days.

Structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, the film bounces between the introverted 13-year-old Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and her outgoing, popular 15-year-old sister, Frédérique (Odile Michel), who both attend the same strict, bourgeois private school. While Anne’s concerns often verge on the petty, be it her frustration at her mother (Anouk Ferjac) refusing to buy her pantyhose or at her sister for preventing her from tagging along to social gatherings, Kurys depicts Anne with a uniquely compassionate eye, mining light humor out of such situations while remaining keenly aware of the almost insurmountable peer pressures and image-consciousness that are the driving forces behind most irrational teenage behavior.

Some scenes, such as the one where Anne’s art teacher ruthlessly mocks her drawing in front of the class, are representative of the emotionally abusive or neglectful relationship between Anne and many of the adults in her life, and throughout, Kurys understands that it’s how Anne is seen by her classmates that most dramatically affects her state of mind. In the heightened emotional state of teenage years, the sting of simply not having a pair of pantyhose can be more painful than a teacher’s overbearing maliciousness. But Peppermint Soda isn’t all doom and gloom, as the bitter disappointments of youth are counterbalanced with a number of droll passages of Anne gossiping and goofing off with her friends. Particularly amusing is a conversation where Anne’s friend confidently, yet with wild inaccuracies, describes sex, eventually guessing that boy’s hard-ons can grow to around six feet long.

In Peppermint Soda’s latter half, Kurys seamlessly shifts her focus toward Frédérique, broadening the film’s scope as current events begin to shape the elder sister’s political consciousness. Everything from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to a classmate’s terrifying firsthand account of the police’s violent overreaction to a student protest against the Algerian War lead Frédérique to slowly awaken to the complexities of the world around her. But even as Frédérique finds herself becoming quite the activist, handing out peace pins and organizing secret meetings in school—and much to the chagrin of her mother and her sexist, conservative teacher—she’s still prone to fits of emotional immaturity when it comes to her boyfriend.

It’s through these frequent juxtapositions of micro and macro concerns, when the inescapable solipsism of childhood runs head-on into the immovable hurdles and responsibilities of adulthood, that Peppermint Soda most powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth. Yet the sly sense of whimsy that Kurys instills in her deeply personal recollections acts as a comforting reminder of the humor tucked away in even our darkest childhood memories. Sometimes it just takes a decade or two to actually find it.

Peppermint Soda is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group.

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt.

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First Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt, because we’d much rather give birth in a tub while surrounded by murderous blind creatures than have to once again write our predictions for the sound categories. As adamant as we’ve been that the Academy owes it to the nominees to air every category, which they agreed to after an extended “just kidding,” it might have given us pause had the sound categories been among the four demoted by Oscar. But no, we must now endure our annual bout of penance, aware of the fact that actually knowing what the difference is between sound editing and sound mixing is almost a liability. In other words, we’ve talked ourselves out of correct guesses too many times, doubled down on the same movie taking both categories to hedge our bets too many times, and watched as the two categories split in the opposite way we expected too many times. So, as in A Quiet Place, the less said, the better. And while that film’s soundscapes are as unique and noisy as this category seems to prefer, First Man’s real-word gravitas and cacophonous Agena spin sequence should prevail.

Will Win: First Man

Could Win: A Quiet Place

Should Win: First Man

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