September 10, 2006

“I like your priorities,” a cinephile chum responded when I told him I was skirting the first week of fall semester to attend the Toronto International Film Festival on the flimsy basis that the deadline date for adding classes is two days after the festival concludes. Frankly, I don’t much like my priorities, but it’s nice to be blissfully delusional, so long as I have understanding outsiders to balm the wounds inflicted by misguided rationalizations.

Speaking of misguided, I was planning to ruminate on the process by which I scoured through this year’s typically gargantuan list of films, what I was anticipating and what I was disappointed didn’t make it—I even started composing a detailed (and non-pejorative) analogy of auteurism to alcoholism, which I may include if I can work it in manageably—but the films are rolling by far faster than I have time to adequately explore them as it is, so onto this year’s selections.

Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Hana, my opener, was the most pacifist samurai film I’ve ever seen, and I wish that quality meant more by its lonesome. It seems that between Nobody Knows and Hana, Kore-eda has tried to make a leap from mood pieces to meat-and-potatoes storytelling, with decidedly mixed results. It’s not that I expect a muscular tone from this would-be subversive tale of a ronin determined to wuss out, but the way Kore-eda lingers on the eccentricities of his milieu—a depressed village seeking resources and motivation—does little to contribute to the rather straightforward emotional through-line of our hero’s “I would avenge my father’s death, but I’m a pretty nice guy” dilemma. As a result, a rather didactic connection between jingoism and economic prosperity prevails where the former appears idiotic and the latter necessary but easy to protract. As one samurai attests, “What’s the point of living without war?” But the film too often foolishly dismisses such statements as the product of a juvenile affinity for vengeance. That said, while Kore-eda has renounced the languorous feel of his previous work, he does show a reflexive theatricality that keeps Hana watchable. A subplot involving a “revenge play” performed to imitate a planned attack attains a catharsis comparable to Renoir circa Rules of the Game when two characters pretend to experience grief as an alternative to actual grief: it’s relief, disguised as sadness, and revealed to be a self-conscious gesture by the grandiose, openly performative way in which the characters express themselves.

Probably better suited to a slot in the middle of the fest when subtitle-reading fatigue sets in, Mike Judge’s Idiocracy is nonetheless a hilarious, fine-tuned satire baffling for its exile from most U.S. screens; the commercial Toronto run was ending on TIFF’s opening night, and I’d be damned if I opted instead for more Hana-style mediocrity in lieu of a chance to catch Judge’s only feature in seven years. The premise deliciously straddles the line between the absurd and the plausible, i.e. that in 500 years pop culture will have rotted our brains and it’ll be up to a cryogenically frozen, intellectually mediocre army man – named Joe Bowers, played by Luke Wilson, allegorically renamed Not Sure – to save humanity. Sounds marketable enough, but here’s a film that bravely attacks our infinite capacity for convenience, showing us a world that much like our own largely focuses on giving consumers the most pleasure with the least effort—the CostCo employee who welcomes customers with a supremely dispassionate “Welcome to CostCo. I love you,” is emblematic of this exchange, imbuing the most meaningful phrase in our language with the passion of a robot, giving a bite-sized piece of everything composed of nothing. The film endorses difficulty, effort, and most obviously intelligence. But what prevents self-congratulation from setting in is that Judge emphasizes Joe’s relative naivete at every turn—one of the film’s most overtly tragic moments occurs when he makes a slip-up common among the future-‘tards—saying “ecomony” in place of “economy”—and he, and us viewers, are the only ones present to criticize him. While it’d be nice to have a world where everyone was smart and articulate, Joe’s problems also stem from a purely selfish desire to be molded and scrutinized by better, more able minds, analogous to the idiots’ excitement when they ask Joe to “do something smart,” as if intelligence were a kind of magic trick when it’s in fact the opposite, a suppression of fantasy and commitment to reality. Anyone who wants to know more about what the hell happened to this film should read this article, detailing not only the corporate savagery of Fox but also how Judge’s passive demeanor led to his downfall, which is all the more moving considering the struggle of Idiocracy’s protagonist, a modest man wrestling with the burdens of the more assertive.

That was the first night, containing 2 movies out of a planned 50 or so. Expect more soon; I’ve already seen a masterpiece, but just haven’t had time to write about it.

Sky Hirschkron | 6:02 pm

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