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Toronto International Film Festival - 2005 - September 12
"Good Buzz"
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      Poster Following the buzz to a hot festival movie is always risky.  More often than not, a film that’s the subject of sudden positive word-of-mouth doesn’t turn out nearly as fine a work as you hope.  Still, you keep on following the path the gossip laid down, just like a cop tracks down multiple leads, on the theory one of them must end with the criminal caught.

     So that’s how your intrepid reporter ended up outside at a Toronto theater at a public screening (as opposed to a press screening) attempting to score a ticket for the Brazilian movie, House of Sand.  I got in, seized a not-so-hot seat, and then, wonder of wonders, was dazzled by Andrucha Waddington’s work.

     There are some films where you know from virtually the first shot that the director is hefty talent in complete control of his  movie-making.  It took the second shot here, but what an image.  Across the shifting and geometrically striking sand dunes of a northern Brazil desert, a small train of people and pack mules make their way against a biting wind.  It’s 1911, and they’re led by a crackpot, Vasco, who is betting that, out of shallow lagoons, he can found a large farming community with himself at the head.  Disaster naturally follows, and soon Vasco’s pregnant wife Aurea (Fernanda Torres) and her mother Maria (Fernanda  Montenegro, of Walter Salles’s Central Station) find themselves alone in a vast expanse.

     Early on, Aurea crosses several large dunes and discovers that she and her marooned mother are nearby a beach on the open sea.  There, a small number of ex-slaves and their children and grandchildren have formed a tiny community, fishing and connecting to the outside world only through the rare visits of a peddler.

     The film then follows the white Aurea and Maria’s struggle to survive and adapt within the Brazilian-African outpost.  They film follows years of struggle, including Aurea’s burgeoning relationship with the handsome, if reticent, Massu (Seu Jorge).  Maria dies, and Aurea grows into middle-age, now played by Montenegro.  With alarm and grief, she sees her daughter Maria (now played by Torres) grow into a slatternly wastrel who spends her time drinking and sleeping with the men in the incrementally growing village (though it’s hardly even that).

     Waddington depicts achingly close chances to escape the inhospitable land, only to somehow fail (we also see young Maria at age 10 in some of these sequences).  Word from the outside rarely comes; no one knows about World War I for example.

     Using the formidable, blazingly white desert and the vast, friendless expanse of open sea it runs down to, Waddington sketches an epic landscape against which the tremulous, intimately portrayed women struggle to maintain their individuality.  That human struggle, despite its deceptively miniature scale, becomes the film’s real epic, and the stunning achievement of House of Sand.

     Far less successful is The Notorious Betty Page, the pin-up girl who achieved the height of her popularity in the mid-1950s and who is the object of a contemporary, self-consciously hip cult.  Page had a difficult (to say the least) early life, but seems to turned into an indominately blithe spirit once she began posing.  Page became noted for two kinds of poses:  Simple, “sunbathing” nude shots done by female photographer Bunny Yaeger (who is presented somewhat dubiously as a proto-feminist) and bondage lay-outs devised by  pornographer (I guess you’d call him) Irving Kraw.  The bondage pictures and 16-mm films were considered outrageously perverse at the time, but they look relatively innocent exercises in playful dress-up next to the modern stuff, and, according to the movie, that’s how Page approached the material.

     The problem is that director and co-writer Mary Harron doesn’t seem to have a well-thought out angle on Page.  The movie is shallow and uninflected, every incident treated with the same bland nothingness, whether its Betty getting gang-raped as a teen, happily showing off her body for the nude shots, or enjoying the exultation of spiritual rebirth.  Gretchen Mol plays Betty with enthusiasm and unselfconsciously undrapes herself in what is assumed to be Page’s cheerful manner.  But finally, her take on Page is opaque.  Not a good movie.

     The same assessment can be made of the prolific English director Michael Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story.  The movie is based on Laurence Sterne’s eerily modern 17th-century novel, The Life and Letters of Tristram Shandy, whose lead character is constantly stepping “outside” the action, with “authorial” commentary on events (such as his own birth) which he couldn’t have witnessed, and even marginalia accompanying the main text.

     Winterbottom’s and screenwriter Martin Hardy’s strategy is to make the adaptation of Sterne’s work a film-within-a-film, with most of the attention drawn to the off-screen activities of the adaptation’s cast and crew.  These are mainly the adaptation’s star, English comics Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, who are hilariously funny when, off together, they take off on comedic riffs.  But Coogan and Brydon aren’t being themselves exactly; they’re playing actors named “Coogan” and “Brydon.”  This mix of real and fanciful extends to the rest of the “real” backdrop.  Gillian Anderson, for instance, plays a character named “Gillian Anderson” while the Scottish actress Kelly MacDonald plays Coogan’s wife under a conventionally “made-up” names.

     Additionally, in the movie-within-the-movie, the character Tristram Shandy, played by Coogan (excuse, me; “Coogan.”  I’m certainly getting tired of those quotation marks.) will make comments on the filmmaking process, mimicking Shandy’s own fictitious marginalia in the novel.

     It’s not a bad idea, and, as I said, the movie can be very funny.  But, typically, Winterbottom doesn’t pursue the promising premise with any depth.  Winterbottom’s career is a succession of such poorly thought-out executions of bright ideas.  Instead of ending up with a thoughtful, post-modern edition of Sterne’s complex novel, we get sleight-of-hand.  And sleight-of-hand, of course, is a way of showing us something that really isn’t there.

     All About Darfur is a documentary about Sudan and its war-ravaged, pillaged province, Darfur.  It’s made by ex-pat Arab northerner Taghreed Elsanhouri, whose movie becomes partly a depiction of her strenuous efforts to reach Darfur from the capital, Khartoum, and partly an encounter with many average Sudanese, including her driver and cameraman.

     Most of these people criticize Elsanhouri for falling into the common practice of regarding Sudan as made up of the Arab, Muslim north and an African, Christian-animist – and grossly oppressed – south.  The Sudanese are mixed-race, most interviewees say, and are identified more by their tribal memberships than their simple skin and religious designations.  But some disagree, and they have stories of terrible grief to back up their position.

     Elsanhouri seems influenced by certain Iranian filmmakers, in that she modestly defers to the exigencies of her circumstances and refers to the filmmaking process, not out of egoism, but as an acknowledgment that the documentarian inevitably becomes an influential interloper.  In any case, she’s made a provocative and intelligent, if minor, film.

Henry Sheehan
September, 2005
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