The Way of All Flesh: Notes on the 2009 Victoria Film Festival

My 2009 New Year’s resolution was to lose some weight, which, I realize, is neither a cool thing to admit in print nor a remotely original resolution. While I wouldn’t consider myself directly pressured to conform to some mythic/ideal body type by, say, the media or Hollywood (the most oft-cited of usual suspects), who, at the end of the day, wouldn’t prefer to look like Brad Pitt (which, granted, would require a lot more effort on my part than merely dropping 20 or 30 pounds)? And, as goes the drill every year, the sizes and shapes of bodies — toned, shrunken, expanded, temporarily altered by pregnancy or perhaps the demands of a particular part — will no doubt loom front and center when movie stars make their way down the red carpet later this month at the Oscar ceremony. In non-Hollywood cinema (the term “independent” has grown far too vague), there’s generally assumed to be less emphasis placed on svelte figures and chiseled cheekbones. But that doesn’t mean the physical form can’t play just as significant a role on-screen, as evidenced by the impressive international slate of movies I enjoyed at this year’s Victoria (British Columbia, Canada) Film Festival. The case starts with the first, and best, film I saw at the festival, Lance Hammer’s hauntingly spare Ballast. In this small-scale meditation on the numbing effect of loss and the possibility of revitalization, conventional dialogue plays a relatively small role. Though not without a few key verbal exchanges — more often, lines are purposefully mumbled, delivered wearily under the breath, or shrieked in a moment of explosive anger — the body language of three principals, set against the starkly beautiful landscape of the Mississippi Delta, tells the real story in this movie. This applies most of all to Lawrence (Michael J. Smith, Jr.), whose linebacker-sized frame might potentially seem authoritative or even intimidating, but slouched in sadness, as Lawrence recovers from both the emotional trauma of his twin brother’s recent suicide and the physical trauma of a self-inflicted gut-shot, it’s emblematic of the mournful, somber tone and idea of slow decay that first-time feature director Hammer sustains throughout.
In the fest’s other arguable masterpiece, Steve McQueen’s much-lauded Hunger, the decay and destruction of a human body is made arrestingly literal. The 1981-set film follows the efforts of IRA prisoners at Belfast’s Maze prison to receive political status, smearing feces and food on their cell walls and refusing to wear jail-issued clothes in protest of their treatment. Their captors retaliate with power-spray washers and riot shields and batons, battering the naked prisoners in a sequence that momentarily shatters the film’s brooding quiet and deliberate, ominous rhythms. In response, IRA member Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) re-initiates a collective hunger strike, a trump card that Sands concedes will likely yield devastating results. Following Sands’ lengthy, reflective discussion with the prison priest — the film’s only extended scene of dialogue and, in a mostly unbroken medium shot, its bravura center-piece — McQueen narrows his previously wandering focus on Sands, paying at least as much mind to the implicit narrative of rapid physical deterioration (unflinching shots of bed sores and flesh stretched tight over Sands’ skeletal frame prompted a handful of walk-outs from disturbed audience members) as to any notions of political martyrdom. When Sands finally, inevitably succumbs to starvation, there’s no big, dramatic orchestral swell on the soundtrack — just some after-notes informing us that the hunger strike did prompt Britain’s Thatcher government to grant most prisoner demands while still refusing to formally recognize their political status.
Less dramatically but no less centrally is the image of a declined physique mined in JCVD, Mabrouk El Mechri’s meta crime flick, starring none other than a morose and more or less washed-up Jean-Claude Van Damme. The premise involves Van Damme — returned to Brussels after suffering a beating on the losing end of a Los Angeles child-custody battle — being held hostage by some amateur criminals attempting to rob a post office bank. They force the local hero to negotiate with the police as if he’s the one holding the post office customers hostage, asking for one million Euros and $465,000 U.S. paid to Van Damme’s L.A. attorney. It’s a potent premise, allowing El Mechri to raise questions about celebrity, the relationship between actor and director, the humiliations of aging, and the morality of Van Damme-style action movies. But “raising” such questions and actively investigating them with any real intellectual rigor are not one in the same. The paradox undermining JCVD is that, through El Mechri’s artsy inclinations (including the pointlessly distracting washed-out cinematography) and his film’s winking meta dimensions, this is supposedly a Van Damme film that’s okay for film fest-type audiences to see and like; and yet, Van Damme’s undeniably human and surprisingly touching lead turn — not the muddled, overly self-satisfied mess around him — is the only reason to recommend the film.
A more successful balance between formal self-reflexivity and human interest can be found in Borderline by first-time Quebecois filmmaker Lyne Charlebois. The opening shot is of a man lying stomach-down on top of a woman on her back, both nude and seemingly asleep. We hear a voice on the soundtrack, and moments later, the narration is transferred directly to the woman on screen. She tells us that the man flopped on top of her is her married and much older university professor, as she rolls him onto his back — accommodating both male and female full frontal nudity before even the opening credits have rolled. After said credits — which involve lead actress Isabelle Blais spilling red wine down her naked body, set to “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself” — things settle down a bit, as Charlebois thoughtfully considers the intersecting subjects of sex addiction and childhood trauma. Through the strength of Blais’ poignant performance and the humor and respect with which Charlebois imbues this potentially problematic material, Borderline feels neither flip nor melodramatic — think: Annie Hall meets Last Tango in Paris, or something to that effect. It also admirably avoids buckling under the navel-gazing weight of its frequent flashbacks and psychotherapeutic voice-over narration, thanks to its conceit that heroine Kiki, an aspiring writer and decided introvert (at least when she’s sober), lives primarily in her own head — a space seemingly more ripe for exploration than her snow-blanketed Montreal neighborhood. And while there’s no assurance of happily-ever-after, there are small signs of happier times ahead, demons sufficiently side-stepped if not necessarily conquered.
The strongest of the four loosely connected shorts that make up Toronto Stories (an omnibus film in the city-themed mold of New York Stories and Paris je t’aime) also offers a fresh take on the discontents of 21st Century female sexuality. Written and directed by and starring Much Music alum Sook-Yin Lee (also of John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus), it’s called “The Brazilian.” Lee tracks the short, disjointed history of a not-quite-romantic relationship between her Willia and Boris (Tygh Runyan), a compulsively shy guy who communicates more through changes in facial hair design than through conversation and who “builds things” for a living. As Willia researches Boris’ odd temperament and esoteric pop culture references, she progressively falls in love with him. Over the course of a year or so — Lee handles the passage of time exceptionally well given her piece’s brief runtime — they date off and on (while debating what exactly constitutes a “date”) and she teaches him about sex in return for teaching her how to “build things”. And yet it’s clear, despite Boris’ guarded demeanor, that her feelings for him are considerably deeper than his are for her. In the film’s most indelible image, Lee stares at her newly pregnant belly in the bathroom mirror, and only then seems to allow herself the realization that her breeding mate may not be long-term partner material. A scene later, as he rebuffs her urgent invitation to spend more time together, she can’t bring herself to tell him the news; having hinted that she has something big to spill, she instead tells him that she’s gotten a Brazilian wax — hence the film’s title. For the record, the other three vignettes vary wildly in quality: the opener, “Shoelaces” is a cute but not cutesy take on first love and the fantasy worlds that kids invent to both pass time and escape from less easily navigable realities; the third, following “The Brazilian”, is called “Windows” and plays like a condensed episode of Law and Order; the last and least of the shorts follows a mentally ill homeless man’s — played unconvincingly by soot-smudged Robert Downey, Jr. look-alike Gil Bellows — long night’s journey into day.
Shifting gears to the terrain of teenage male sexuality is Bart Got a Room, directed by neophyte feature helmer Brian Hecker, who made the trip up to Vancouver Island for a post-screening Q&A session. His semi-autobiographical growing pains comedy (“I wanted to make a John Hughes movie with a Woody Allen flair”, relayed Hecker) centers on Danny Stein (Steven Kaplan, in a role that screams Michael Cera), a senior in high school desperately seeking a prom date. He leaves his similarly nerdy best friend, Camille (Alia Shawkat, aka Maeby, Cera’s character’s cousin/love-interest on Arrested Development), as a last-resort stand-by, while eyeing a flirty sophomore cheerleader he gives rides from school to, blushing and stammering as she nonchalantly changes clothes in the co-pilot seat of his Buick. This is obviously well-tread territory and occasionally the results feel a touch generic (especially when compared to more audacious/raunchy fare, ala Superbad), but by and large, Bart charms us through its attention to detail. This is particularly true of its South Florida locale (like Ballast, Bart illuminates a corner of America rarely acknowledged in movies), replete with retirement communities and strip mall diners offering early-bird specials, and of the affectionately skewed portraits of Danny’s (e.g., Hecker’s) divorced parents, played to quirkily humane perfection by William H. Macy and Cheryl Hines. Speaking after the film, Hecker stressed just how personal a project this was for him and confessed that it’s subsequently been difficult reading over the few negative notices his film has thus far received. I nevertheless wouldn’t have felt too guilty panning the film had it sucked, but, hey, Brian, if you’re reading this review: You made a pretty terrific first feature — loved the scene where Macy tests the walls in his new pad by feigning orgasms. Keep up the good work, buddy.
And, finally, there’s the curious case of Kim Tai-Sik’s Driving with My Wife’s Lover, which might best be described as South Korean cinema’s answer to Sideways but, naturally, weirder. The film’s first half actually echoes Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, with overhead shots a vehicle driving around the city’s scenic outskirts paired with some rather uneasy conversation on the soundtrack. One key difference, however, is that here the driver isn’t yet aware of his passenger’s identity or intentions, where the reverse is true in Kiarostami’s film — a point of significance insofar as the wheel of an automobile represents control. Another is the wildly divergent paths these two films take following their opening stretches. I can’t imagine Kiarostami ever filming a helicopter rising up from below a cliff as two men pee over it, urine spraying back at them from the gust of the propeller. Tsai Ming-liang? Maybe. Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church, starring as the two men in question? Sure. As for Driving’s take on the human body: after their ride breaks down on a back road, the two men — one a smooth-talking, womanizing Seoul cab driver, the other a craftsman whose titular wife he’s screwing — decide to skinny dip in a nearby lake. When they hear the tow truck driver calling from the road, they rush to put their clothes back on and meet him. Meanwhile, Kim remains momentarily at the lake, turning his focus to the former man’s cell phone, left behind in the water, its screen displaying a short, repeatedly streaming video of one of his sexual conquests cheekily flashing the camera. Along with the human form, this scene has something to say about the unique nature of cinema as a medium — the ageless image, unaffected by its audience (or lack thereof), replaying forever. Or at least until that phone battery dies.