Small Wonder

Nick Pinkerton on Wavelengths at the Toronto International Film Festival

Blake Williams, Prototype, 2017, 3D video, color, sound, 63 minutes.

A SHELTER AWAY from the vast and all-consuming Toronto International Film Festival’s red-carpet parades, the Wavelengths program is TIFF’s home for all things experimental and otherwise undefinable. As of last year, the mandate of Wavelengths programmer Andréa Picard had even expanded to include off-site installation works, such as Albert Serra’s multiscreen Singularity.

Such expansions were curtailed in 2017. Wavelengths was slightly smaller this year—as, indeed, was TIFF in toto, part of an across-the-board attempt to rein in a megafestival that had become too big to present a cogent identity. The irony is that in reducing programs uniformly instead of making selective, thoughtful cuts, the TIFF brass made the fest only marginally smaller and no more coherent––it still screened more tennis-themed movies in one edition than any festival has a right to—though Wavelengths, even in a slightly abridged form, retained its curatorial personality as a program that puts its individual films into lively conversation with one another.

If a popular frontrunner emerged from the Wavelengths pack this year it was Texas-born, Toronto-based Blake Williams’s PROTOTYPE, subsequently acquired by Grasshopper Films for US theatrical distribution. Williams has, for some time, been known as a writer and active proponent of stereoscopic filmmaking, and while his previous short ventures into anaglyph 3-D didn’t succeed in making me a convert, his debut feature, shot in the polarized 3-D process, is an accomplishment on another plane. Without anything resembling a narrative, the film sustains its sixty-three-minute runtime by way of various movements composed of stereoscopic images from the catastrophic Galveston Hurricane of 1900, the “stacking” of 3-D screens shot from a 1959 Philco television set, rodeo footage in which the phases of movement have been broken down in the fashion of an Étienne-Jules Marey motion study, and a contemporary beachfront coda done in color video, concluding with a final piece of depth-perception play, an image of a foregrounded concrete stairwell’s horizontal lines meeting those of the waves beyond.

Where PROTOTYPE’s movements flow together, those of Narimane Mari’s Le fort des fous are jarring, presumably by design. The film is constructed as a triptych of similarly sized sections—the first is set in an imagination of the colonial past in the filmmaker’s native Algeria; the second follows a wandering commune on Greece’s Kythira island, poised somewhere between the present and a mythic past; and the third is a documentary-style platform for contemporary revolutionists, including a Prosfygika castaway in contemporary Athens. The central part, oblique and distinguished by dynamic figures-in-landscape framings, was easily the most absorbing, though regardless of personal preference it’s hard to imagine a viewer who could value all three drastically different sections equally. Perhaps this confrontation of categories of taste is the point—and Mari is a strong enough filmmaker to convincingly employ and dispense with different styles at will—though a shape-shifter such as Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time It Gets Dark, included in the previous year’s Wavelengths, goes deeper in exploring the anxiety of approach. Another film in parts, Ben Russell’s Good Luck, the dregs of the section, is a bifurcated work that begins at a large subterranean copper mine in Bor, Serbia, and then moves to the compare-and-contrast setting of an open-air collective gold-panning operation in Suriname.

Where Russell’s film suggests a wariness toward its subjects that’s equal parts awed and awkward, intimacy occurs effortlessly in Mrs. Fang, the latest from prolific Chinese independent documentarian Wang Bing. A relatively to-the-point offering from a filmmaker best known for more sprawling undertakings such as West of the Tracks (2003), Mrs. Fang’s runtime is determined by its subject, the film being essentially a document of a days-long vigil at the deathbed of a woman in the final stages of dementia: When she ends, it does too. Scenes of the woman’s family speculating on minute changes in her stiffening body language and close-ups in which her staring eyes fill with tears are intercut with nocturnal open-air ones of relations night fishing with an electrified dip net. The sharp back-and-forth lateral movement between human woe and the natural world counterpoises two variations on waiting, and also fits somewhat in the tradition of Tang Dynasty poetry. Watching Wang’s emotional, moral, and pictorial intelligence at work from moment to moment elevates Mrs. Fang above mere morbidity.

Pedro Pinho, The Nothing Factory, 2017, 16 mm, color, sound, 177 minutes.

Wang’s movie is in conversation with another film that uses close-ups even more exclusively, Caniba, a portrait of sorts of Issei Sagawa, a Japanese man whose butchery of a Dutch woman in Paris in 1981 while they were foreign-exchange students earned him a tribute in the Rolling Stones song “Too Much Blood.” (“You know he took her to his apartment, cut off her head / Put the rest of her body in the refrigerator, ate her piece by piece.”) Codirectors Véréna Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor are best known for their 2012 nautical GoPro epic Leviathan, a thrilling film and an unrepeatable stunt, a fact they have happily understood. Here, they’ve adapted an entirely new, pared-down observant style to their sedentary subjects, filling the frame with the aging, mottled flesh of Sagawa, now suffering near-paralysis, and his caretaker brother, letting the focus drift in such a fashion as to make them seem almost incorporeal. Sparse archival footage includes glimpses of the Sagawa brothers’ privileged youths—about as much as the film offers in the way of explaining how Issei escaped serious prison time. Among other things, Caniba is a study in pampered self-satisfaction, the undying compulsion toward sibling rivalry, and the invidious power of audiovisual suggestion—walk-outs abounded at my screening, though much of the worst here is willfully obscured.

Two other films that beg pairing are Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette: The Childhood of Joan of Arc and Pedro Pinho’s The Nothing Factory, both unorthodox musicals, though Pinho’s film contains just one old-fashioned production number. Dumont’s movie, based on texts by Charles Peguy, begins with eight-year-old dynamo Lise Leplat Prudhomme as young Joan and follows her into her teenage years, through her divine vision of Archangel Michael, Saint Margaret, and Saint Catherine of Alexandria and her final departure from Lorraine en route to martial glory. Largely limited to the countryside where Joan tends her flock and delivered in song, Jeannette bears a clear debt to Straub and Huillet’s Moses und Aron (1973), though it’s distinguished by a heavy-metal-inflected score by French electronic musician Igorrr. The idea, one supposes, is to draw an analogy between religious ecstasy and the transports of head-banging, though Dumont shows even less affinity for thrash than he does for medieval Christianity. Has there’s ever been a filmmaker so single-mindedly preoccupied with the matter of faith who has so thoroughly failed to evince any reason for that preoccupation beyond fetishization of its more aberrant manifestations? While the formerly somber Dumont’s turn to the wacky since 2014’s miniseries L’il Quinquin has, to some, marked a creative rebirth, to these eyes it’s only made more glaring an essential absence in his work.

There is something more to recommend of The Nothing Factory, set during the lassitude of a labor dispute at an elevator factory outside Lisbon. It at least tosses off a lot of ideas, most regarding labor in a post-work society, during its more than three-hour runtime—though these ideas seem to decorate the film’s surface rather than act as a part of its superstructure. While Pinho’s film practically demands—and has received—consideration as a major work by virtue of its subject matter and daunting length, it works more in passages than as a sustained whole, and I doubt it will have anything like the same longevity in my mind as several short works at Wavelengths. Benjamin Crotty and Bertrand Dezoteux’s little piss-take Division Movement to Vungtau, for example, provided sick laughs in a program not overloaded with humor, a series of iris effects on archival footage of US troops in Vietnam, to which has been added a cast of anthropomorphic CGI fruit capering on the fringes of the image.

Further highlights include Rawane Nassif’s ingeniously framed Turtles Are Always Home, shot among the ersatz Venetian canals of Doha’s “Quanat Quartier,” which finds countless fresh variations on the theme of photographic and architectural illusionism in the course of twelve minutes. Jodie Mack’s Wasteland No. 1 – Ardent, Verdant, which moves between flower-bedecked fields and the artificial landscape of circuit boards, is a work of hard clarity of intention and thrilling cadence, and there’s something admirable in the setup-punch-line simplicity of Brown and Clear, whose title refers most explicitly to the two flavors of liquor served at a bar in director Kevin Jerome Everson’s hometown of Mansfield, Ohio. Finally, there was a Harvard Film Archive restoration of the late Framington, Massachusetts–based filmmaker Anne Charlotte Robertson’s 1976 Pixillation. I’ve been moved by every Robertson piece I’ve ever seen, and this prismatic, wind-tossed self-portrait was no exception. It’s a model in conveying maximum emotion with a paucity of means, in a program that continues to distinguish itself with diminished resources.

The Toronto International Film Festival ran September 7 through 17.