[8 September 2008]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Up until today things were looking pretty bleak here in Toronto, as far as films go. My favorite parts of the festival have been, in no particular order: the new Olivier Assayas film, the food, and the multitude of men in tight pants; including, for the second straight year in a row, the debonair, police-barricade-jumping Viggo Mortensen—but more on him later, because, as we learned last year with Eastern Promises, every Toronto Film Festival must always come back to Viggo.
This has mostly been a banner year for star-spotting: I’ve sat at the feet of Queen Latifah, Sophie Okonedo, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson and Dakota Fanning (lol—check out October’s Suffragette City column for a full-length dissection of their film The Secret Life of Bees) and I’ve seen Gael Garcia Bernal get a piggy-back ride from Mark Ruffalo. After all of this star-fuckery, I was thinking it would be great to actually get to see a film that truly moves me, rather than the man-candy proliferating the streets.
Thankfully, I got a chance to catch Guillermo Arriaga’s spectacular directorial debut, The Burning Plain today, which more than satisfied my need for nourishing cinematic sustenance.
Arriaga’s debut follows his much-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay for Babel and is reminiscent, in many ways, of his prior two films with Alejandro Gonzales-Inaritu, Ammores Perros and 21 Grams. Comparably, The Burning Plain tells several distinct, convergent stories that are elliptically inter-connected and are told with a singular energy and dynamism that has come to be associated with Arriaga.
A master at capturing multiple, parallel perspectives in one film, without it ever feeling overly-full, talky or scattered, Arriaga has also carved an unexpected niche as one of the premiere, go-to screenwriters who is continually exploring unique female characters and women’s themes in a touching, intelligent way. The women of Arriaga’s worldview are amongst some of the most piquant, well-conceived characters in recent cinema history—they are the everywomen who are often thrust into extraordinary circumstances, who are put through their paces by life, and not some fantasy Hollywood ideal of what a woman’s life is, either. They have real problems, which are often crippling.
In 21 Grams, there was the trio of Naomi Watts, Melissa Leo and Charlotte Gainsbourg all going for broke, each giving a superlative, sincere performance (with Watts garnering an Oscar nomination for Best Actress). Babel’s actresses, Adriana Barraza and Rinko Kickuchi, of course scored an unprecedented set of Academy Award nominations for their very different women at the ends of their ropes in Mexico and Japan, respectively. It is not a surprise in the least that our brightest and best are lining up to collaborate with him.
With this new offering, which took 15 years to gestate (“you have to wait until the story is mature enough to be told,” he said in an interview), the director can add four more excellently drawn female characters to this pantheon of gorgeously modern, unforgettable anti-heroines.
The Burning Plain opens in the Organ Mountains in Las Cruces, a place of isolation, where a trailer is ablaze in the middle of seeming nothingness. Abruptly, the point of view switches to Portland, Oregon, where an angry, nude Sylvia (Charlize Theron) is instructing her sleeping lover John (John Corbett) to “get out”. These opening sequences add to the key elements of poignancy, and mystery that run throughout without being overly sappy or arty. It keeps viewers guessing and hanging on for any crumb of a detail that will better orient them to what is happening. You want to pay attention, you want to understand.
Sylvia is a restaurant manager who has a problem with acting out sexually. She’s also a self-mutilator, who, at times when she’s alone, looks like she is about to crawl out of her own skin or even end it all at any second. There is a thrilling, fresh approach to this character that is wisely, masterfully under-played by Theron. When at work, she’s another woman altogether. To the actresses’ credit, she is able to use her own physicality in a creative way: her facial expressions, her guarded body language, and her damaged silence and stillness are all perfectly modulated against a glorious ocean backdrop at one point, and the effect is gripping. She tackles the very tricky concept of cyclical, learned behavior being wildly, destructively misinterpreted without any hint of histrionics.
The film switches gears quickly once more, to the story of brothers Santiago and Christobal (Danny Pino and Diego Torres), whose father, Nick, we learn as the survey the wreckage, died in the opening sequence; making love to a woman they refer to as “that slut”. At Nick’s funeral, an angry man shows up with his kids screaming that the dead Nick was a “wetback” and that he hopes both sons burn in hell alongside their father for taking away the mother of his children. Nick was apparently not so well-liked.
Arriaga sets up another multi-lingual, multicultural mini-epic that cannily explores border town tensions and racial tensions, with the same ease with which he looks at family and internal tensions. He does all of this while constantly maintaining a clear, gorgeous mise- en-scene filled with sexual and romantic intrigues that are utterly believable and expertly shaded with a minimalist, lyrical quality. In particular, his take on middle-aged sexuality, in the story of Gina (Kim Basinger) and her lover (Joaquim De Almeida) has a lived-in realism that makes for a wholly compelling, watchable experience that explores with frankness a woman’s sexuality in the aftermath of breast cancer.
There is also an obvious thrill to watching these actors dig into their ripe, juicy roles with sharp abandon. Theron is perfectly cast as the depressed, wanton Sylvia. Her eyes burning with an intensity not unlike the fire that opens the film, the performer gets her best role in years, in her best film since winning the Oscar for Monster. There is a degree of thoughtful commitment and intelligence in this performance that marks her as one of, if not the most consistently adventure-seeking, risk taking female actresses of her generation. And she is only getting even better with age.
The same goes double for Basinger, whose face is more glorious and breathtaking now, at age 55, than it was almost 30 years ago when she first began acting. She does a tremendous job of playing a real woman, who shops at K-Mart, and lives a rather meager existence. When big stars like this play parts that require them to be “real” or “de-glam” as it has come to be known, there can often be a distracting star quality and artifice that permeates the work, hinders the actual performance, and ruins their full disappearance into character.
Not so with Gina, in any way: Basinger nails this out of the park and should be extremely proud of her work here. The character is torn between familial duties and lustful abandon, she has a bruised, wounded sexuality; which is something of a Basinger specialty (for which she has been given an Oscar, for 97’s L.A. Confidential). This ordinary housewife’s unassuming descent into a tragedy that will forever alter her family’s lives becomes at once inordinately moving and harrowing in the actresses’ hands. Gina is her best performance; her most subtle, mature, brilliant work.
Arriaga’s use of the close-up with these two characters borders on being Ingmar Bergman-esque at times, and he knows how to show off an actor’s face with pitch-perfect modulation, allowing for silence and appropriately necessary reflective moments that drive the story and are crucial for establishing such complex characters. He does this not only with Theron and Basinger, but with the entire excellent cast as well.
Everything that the film wants to accomplish—it’s mystery, it’s yearning, and it’s heart, are all reflected on the faces and in the eyes of the cast, in loving close-ups that are infused with naturally moody lighting. Authoritatively written, photographed, and directed, The Burning Plain is an eloquent, moving experience that needs to be released into theaters ASAP for serious year-end awards consideration. If Basinger can pull off an Oscar win for getting slapped by Russell Crowe in L.A. Confidential, then she more than merits consideration for at least a nomination here, particularly in such a weak year.
From one “plain” to another, we travel to the town of Appaloosa, where lawlessness runs rampant (in the form of a dastardly Jeremy Irons), and the “good guys” (Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen) ride into the place to save the day, for a nominal fee, of course.
The film treads the same similar ground as many other cinematic Western points of reference, John Ford being the obvious, though even as an homage Appaloosa, which is very entertaining and well-made, doesn’t really come even close to capturing that genre master’s ebullience. The main draw for the some 1,500 (!) people who came to see the film at it’s world premiere at the beautiful, historic Elgin Theater in the middle of downtown Toronto was not the content, likely, but the experience of being closer to the stars—Harris, Irons, Mortensen and Renee Zellweger were all on hand to launch this labor of love.
In addition to star-spotting, another facet of the “festival experience” is meeting genuine fans of film who are revved up, having fun, and talking trash while staked on the street, waiting in massive, unbelievable lines to get in to a show they pay top dollar for. Whether it’s 17 year old guys spazzing out over catching a glimpse of Zellweger, or middle-aged women who are not really sure who Viggo is (but once they come face to face with him, they are won’t soon forget!), part of doing this festival successfully involves trading war stories with your neighbor while standing in these lines, and loving it (and I should really be getting paid by this festival to write this “how-to-festival” manual).
The red carpet premiere brought out not only stars and fans with tickets, but also drew a massive crowd of onlookers and paparazzi across the street, who were all screaming and yelling at the top of their lungs, as what felt like a million flashes went off. It was actually a little bit scary and I don’t know how these film people can handle that part of their job. After doing his duty on the carpet, Mortensen, after first going inside, came running back out and actually hopped over police barricades (followed by a frantic entourage), scampered through downtown traffic on Yonge Street and signed multiple autographs for fans who had been standing there for hours. Talk about a dashing star turn. I don’t think I even need to really mention this, but that is one handsome man.
Before the premiere of Appaloosa, Harris took to the stage to address the audience. “I know I’m not the governor of Alaska, but,” joked the self-effacing actor-director to thunderous applause as he began to explain his project to the crowd. In 2000, he brought his very different Pollack here for launching, to great success, which he hoped to repeat with his newest venture.
Based on the novel of the same name by Robert Parker (who was in attendance and given a shout-out from the dais), Harris explained he first wanted to do the project while he was in Ireland doing a play and became fascinated by the two lead characters’ relationship, and called Mortensen one of the “loves of his life” (the other, he pointed out was Zellweger, in the film). There was an intensely emotional moment that felt very private when Harris thanked his father, who plays a judge in Appaloosa. “I’m so darn proud of him,” Harris said, choking back tears. “He did a great job”. His father stood up and received a roaring ovation as Harris beamed. Then bringing Irons, Mortensen, and Zellweger out to the stage, he commented that they were some of the best actors he had ever worked with and that there were “no divas, no jerks,” and then joined the group in the theater to watch the film on the big screen, with the crowd, something of an opening night tradition here.
The most surprising thing about Appaloosa was its sense of humor. There are countless moments of good-hearted quips and cowboy jokes intertwined with the violence that had the audience guffawing; everything is sort of mildly reminiscent of other similar flicks, and from what I gathered from Harris’ speech, his making this film seemed to be something he was doing perhaps for his dad, but also just for the good old-fashioned fun of spinning a Old West yarn that audiences will probably really enjoy. What’s wrong with making an enjoyable, simple little film every now and again?
Revenge, anarchistic villains, and shady ladies, are the recurring themes that the hard-working townsfolk of the titular city are relentlessly plagued by as they are repeatedly hounded by the Braggs gang (led by Irons), who take the law into their own hands. Enter Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch (Harris and Mortensen), legendary men of honor who will even the odds out by slinging a gun faster than anyone else, to protect their charges, for the right price. They trade jokes back and forth, even in the face of danger; in the wise-cracking, rich American tradition Old West mythology.
Still, the film is less about cinematic innovation that it is about the pure delight of making movies with people you like, with material of your own choosing. The esprit de corps, the camaraderie, and enthusiasm shared by this cast (working harmoniously together) and the adventure they embarked on making it is almost more remarkable than the actual end product. Largely an homage, Appaloosa is well-made, and well-shot; has nice sets and costumes, but no one is going to be winning any kind of awards for acting for their work here. And that’s fine. Each cast member does fine and serves the material appropriately.
Harris (looking like he just stepped off the set of his ‘87 film Walker) and Mortensen have a bountiful, lived-in chemistry and Irons is a completely stock “bad guy”, but he does that sort of greasy cliché very well. Zellweger wisely underplays in a strange role, essentially playing a kind of bad actress. She seems at home in the genre, able to employ her comedic chops in equal measure to her dramatic side.
This couldn’t be any more far removed from the world of Jackson Pollack, so to that point, Harris as a director shows a capable versatility by proving he can coordinate a big-budget, economically-paced, rhythmic period piece. It doesn’t re-invent the wheel or anything, but it is nonetheless energetic and enjoyable—a throwback and a crow-pleaser. I can’t wait to see what Harris does next, he’s one of the most sincerely adventurous artists we have working.
At the historic Elgin theater on Yonge street in downtown Toronto, there are three lines that form when a film is playing there: a regular line for people with tickets, a “rush” line for those who don’t, and a special, corporate whoring line for those who have Visa platinum or gold cards, who get to go in before everyone else and have priority seating.
When I was waiting to see Appaloosa on Friday, I furiously looked through my wallet to see what kind of credit card I could muster up, and, as I didn’t think I had the proper piece of plastic, I waited in the regular line, got a terrible seat with a pillar in front of me and watched everyone else whiz by.
Saturday for Fernando Meirelles’ Blindness, I discovered that I actually did have a Visa platinum card in my wallet the whole time.
I was let immediately in, and whisked down to the Visa Lounge, a super-exclusive (well, not really) little area of the theater where the elite (again, not really) chill and mingle. Lindt chocolate chefs were dipping gourmet bon bons, and every table was adorned with orchids and glittering little candle lamps. Those with no Visa (the ones who probably are wise to not have one, that is!) waited in what looked like a miles-long line, for literally hours, while I enjoyed a glass of chardonnay and ate freshly-prepared candies brought directly to my table like a civilized human being (or was it like a spoiled housewife?). Sure beats waiting in the rain.
In attendance was, I think, every single person who was involved with making the film: Meirelles, Julianne Moore, Sandra Oh, Mark Ruffalo, and Gael Garcia Bernal (who rode out piggy-back on Ruffalo) were among the glitterati onstage, while in the audience I was mere feet away from two amazing Oscar-winners: Adrien Brody and Geoffrey Rush.
Screenwriter Don McKellar (the Canadian writer-director-star of the critically acclaimed Last Night) came onstage to tell a charming anecdote about traveling to the Canary Islands to woo author Jose Saramago for the book’s rights (“he was suspicious of the film industry. I don’t know why” he deadpanned); then after Meirelles brought everyone out and made a short speech, the house lights went down, and, having not read the book (I know! I know!), I had no idea what to expect.
Immediately, the audience was transported into a visually arresting world. We are plopped down squarely into a nameless city where everything seems like business as usual. Except, through the eyes of this director, there is a stylistically precise element to each shot, something that has become a major component of his oeuvre. I talk a lot about “energy” and how it relates to a film’s life force in my writing, and Meirelles is a man who proudly uses his “energy” and exuberance to guide a film from being ordinary to being completely unique—I doubt you will not encounter any more visually courageous imagery this year.
Washed out in gauzy tones, with effects blurring and confounding and white-hot lights popping and disorienting, Meirelles forces his viewer to be a part of this world much in the way Julian Schnabel had the spectators see the world of Jean-Dominique Bauby through his single working eye in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. When you put your audience into a position of empathy like this, it is extremely hard for them to remain unattached; they are forced to care almost. It’s jarring. Personally, I wish that all films could be as thoughtful and talent-rich this: multiple perspectives from around the globe converging into one spectacular artistic collaboration, with everyone bringing their “A” game, on one of the most celebrated modern novels is pretty much a dream come true.
These kinds of major works are rare, and the elements actually coming together cohesively are even rarer. The film faced an uphill battle after being trashed at Cannes, but the cut that played in Toronto, I am told, was a marked improvement, and majorly over-hauled—which included taking out what I heard was a stilted narrative monologue.
Moore and Ruffalo are “The Doctor” and “The Doctor’s Wife”, who, when everyone is beginning to lose their sight, remains the calm in the eye of the storm. They are mainly relatively calm (comparatively) because the wife, for an unknown reason, has still gone blind. Everything whites out for the characters that do, though, and then complete, anarchic pandemonium breaks loose. An epidemic sweeps this city, hitting it hard. This could really be anyone’s city. The panic that ensues is wholly petrifying, especially when people’s evil natures get the better of them.
One by one, the characters are cordoned off into a dank, filthy “quarantine” by the government. It is scary to think of what would happen should a large medical disaster of these proportions actually happen—are we ready to take on the unknown? Are we strong enough to not take advantage of one another in a time of catastrophic crisis? Can we band together and help one another in a state of helplessness and defensiveness? Over the course of the film, these questions have to be answered by the performers, and the answers might shock you. It’s surprising where the sources of courage are in the darkest hours, and everyone begins to rely on Moore’s ability to see as she is the only one who still can. She’s everyone’s nurse, everyone’s angel; ghostly pale to the point of being nearly translucent. An apparition floating through the shit and the rubbish to help strangers.
Left to their own devices, after the government alternately threatens and abandons them, the blind begin to make their own help. They band together to make the best of a bad situation. The apocalyptic doom and gloom plays as being surprisingly realistic and not to hard to imagine taking place in the foreseeable future—it does not take much suspension of disbelief to think that human suffering would be placed lower in importance than government or corporate bureaucracy.
Both could easily be our undoing in real life as well. It’s not a stretch to think the government would just as soon kill the infirmed as they would help them, probably because that is already sort of happening to the homeless, to the mentally ill, and to the disabled. No pun intended, but when it comes to the needy, we have a nasty habit of turning a blind eye. We seal ourselves off hermetically from these problems rather than face them and fix them, which is exactly what happens in Blindness.In the film, the people “guarding” the blind callously laugh when they see people hurt or when people violently die. They are forbidden from leaving their prison-home.
At turns disturbingly provocative, and risky, the entire cast of actors has a field day with the gruesome challenges Saramago outlined in his epic. The multiple physical challenges that they put themselves through and the universal, relevant emotional themes that are played out require an expertly-trained ensemble to hold this sort of mirror up to society. Not only do the actors gamely take up the challenge, they do it in a responsible, socially and globally aware way. Even though there are extended scenes of violence, particularly one of the most awful scenes of female torture, rape and degradation I have ever seen put to film; there is never a feeling of gratuitousness.
When the psychotic, self-appointed “King of Ward 3” takes over the food supply, he demands the other blind wards give up all of their valuables in order to eat. When they run out of jewelry, he takes women as payment. The women volunteer, thinking this will save them in some way, but they are brutalized to a savage degree that had some female audience members in tears. I’m not sure what that meant, but there was an undeniable, terrible power to what was happening up there that elicits a gut response.
In that sequence, a survival instinct comes out in the women that they didn’t know was there to begin with, and it compels them to bring about change in a denouement of pure adrenaline-fueled chaos and triumph where people walk the streets in zombie-like hordes, scavenging desperately in a world of ruination.
Meirelles needs to be commended for taking on this job that requires someone with a perfect blending of an artist’s eye and the technical know-how of a true genius. It is unimaginable what kind of work went into piecing this meticulous bedlam together, stitch by stitch, and the degree of difficulty in coordinating, staging, and choreographing this mayhem. He pulls it off beautifully, though, without resorting to beating us over the head with symbolism or preaching. This is a delicate balancing act that proves him to be one of our great contemporary working directors.
Blindness is a must-see film for this bravery. It was a privilege to get to watch it with the cast and crew, and award it with a standing ovation and shouts of “bravo!”