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Confronting the Past with Documentary: The 2011 Toronto International Film Festival

By Joseph Jon Lanthier

Built two years ago to provide the Toronto International Film Festival organization with a perennial headquarters, and the Canadian city with a muscular independent showcase, the TIFF Bell Lightbox is redolent of the isolating quirks of festival-going. Office-like and rectangularly prismatic, with three stories of theaters, the building's amenities are strangely conducive to hyper-personalized experience. The escalators are narrow; the slim, cushioned leisure benches placed on each floor barely accommodate two adults. The walls and windows form an overwhelming, almost smarting whiteness to greet those emerging from darkened screenings, as though intending to discourage conversation and instead cauterize one's post-cinematic perceptual rawness. A row of elevators is tucked inconspicuously, almost begrudgingly, behind the main staircase, and the bathrooms are at times frustratingly digital in their attempt to provide maximum convenience. (A urinal flushed three times during one visit, but I had to wave my hand for nearly 20 seconds before a paper towel dispenser to get it to work).

This unbearably tasteful modernity was an appropriate enough prison in which to be stuck for a solid week in September, when the Lightbox housed the majority of the year's TIFF press and industry screenings away from the public bustle of the galas, director appearances and panels. The child-like geometry of the architecture, the pervasive blankness, and even the Jacques Tati gag-ready toilets and sinks are like a pure canvas upon which one can splatter a response to any given showing, then stand back afterward to see what sticks. After the first screening I attended at the festival, of Corinna Belz's Gerhard Richter Painting, I ran to the men's room to wash my hands. After placing my palm underneath a crooked, black spigot, an apropos squiggle of opalescent gray appeared across my fingers, accompanied by a perky whirring. I watched the squiggle smear into an abstract blob before pressing it into my other hand and rubbing, as though praying for the automated faucet's activation.

From Corinna Belz's Gerhard Richter Painting

That soapy excretion might have been more viscerally piquant than anything Richter produces in Belz's film--though we watch him exact his obsessive methods with meticulous detail. Short on archival interludes and biographical anecdotes but brimming with real-time studio footage, the documentary is one of the most brutally honest renderings of the practice of visual artistry. Richter's previous moments of inspiration, some of which are briefly described for neophytes, seem all the more precious because Belz can't seem to capture him in one. Her blocking, however, remains uncannily tactful throughout: In one session, we watch Richter scrape a myriad of prime colors into a gruel-like substance with a squeegee, and the camera is careful to keep his tense hands or brooding face in the frame until the piece has reached some sort of completion.

Richter's foundering appears in some respects the product of stringent stylistic adherence--once an upstart who collapsed representative distinctions between photography and painting, he now churns out abstract series that treat color as texture and vice versa. This calcification of personal aesthetic is what similarly makes Neil Young Journeys, Jonathan Demme's third concert documentary with the aging folk-rock musician (and incidentally one of the two Demme films that played TIFF this year), so subdued. Shot during a contemplative solo performance at Toronto's Massey Hall before a hushed audience, the movie is more or less a live rendering of Young's recent album, Le Noise, with the addition of a few benignly belted-out hits. Demme spackles the set list with footage of Young driving from his hometown in suburban Ontario to the venue and narrating the trip with generic reminiscences; the elliptical format seems as sturdy and complacent as Young's rustic-sounding, modal guitar tunings.

From Jonathan Demme's Neil Young Journeys

Accessibility of public personality, or the lack thereof, haunted another doc that played TIFF: Sarah Palin: You Betcha!, which starts out as a quest for the "reality" behind the titular politician and swiftly devolves into a portrait of the frustrations of journalistic impregnability. Director Nick Broomfield travels to Wasilla, Alaska, and interviews Palin's parents, her former pastor, and a circus of former career confidants before getting anticlimactically booted from a rally for asking the wrong questions. Broomfield doesn't dig much up that we don't already know--and occasionally treats yesterday's memes like they're exposé gold--but his decidedly non-American self-deprecation provides Palin's troubled celebrity with cultural depth. That Broomfield humiliates himself for the sake of understanding a trigger happy, right-wing governor-turned-failed vice presidential candidate from the non-contiguous US is an intimidating indicator of the loopiness of our global political climate.

In these three films, Nick Broomfield--who once turned to Heidi Fleiss with similarly humble scrutiny, and who can be considered the subject proper of Sarah Palin: You Betcha!--Neil Young and Gerhardt Richter are all in a sense interacting with former versions of themselves. The TIFF roster possessed such a glut of documentaries by both mainstays and newcomers that it's virtually impossible to tease out any intentional thematic strands from the programming; still, many of the choices I made in my screening schedule depicted the confrontation of essentially unassailable pasts. This even included dialogue with national history: The Argentinean film Fatherland, directed by Nicolás Prividera, has a cast of anonymous unknowns in street clothes wandering about Buenos Aires' famed La Recoleta mausoleum, reading passionate quotes by their forefathers. The movie's text-heaviness and "lest we forget" sobriety aren't interacting with the country's incunabula so much as presenting it, but the utterly undramatic recitations by men, women and children of all ages likeably flatten the distance between revolutionary and civilian.

Werner Herzog's Into the Abyss, too, engages with the past, providing a patiently apolitical look at two twentysomethings who were incarcerated for murder in their late teens. Herzog clearly sympathizes with the young man who's been sentenced to capital punishment (the other received life imprisonment), but he can't or won't refute the evidence incriminating him, either, and eventually his languid conversations with the death row resident take on a futile rhythm. Breaking from the structural playfulness that defined his early nonfiction work, Herzog's receptiveness and fidelity to his subjects' narratives closely resembles his approach in the remarkable Little Dieter Needs to Fly, another film that found beauty in idiosyncratic courage. We're shocked by the rawness of the testimony from the other inmate's repentant father, serving a life sentence himself, and in the newly-wedded wife of the same perpetrator, happily pregnant by artificial means. That this last, touching talking head is immediately followed by footage of an empty execution room neatly encapsulates Herzog's cynical humanism--the rainbows we're offered in life very often lead directly to the grave.

From Werner Herzog's Into the Abyss

By contrast, in Crazy Horse, I could feel Fredrick Wiseman almost coquettishly challenging his own philosophy. Cataloging professional prurience with his typical unobtrusiveness--"Spanish fly-on-the-wall"-style doc, can we call it?--Wiseman takes us back- and on-stage at the famed Parisian cabaret of the title, where choreographer Philippe Decouflé is reinventing the peep show. Rehearsals of full musical numbers take up much of the two-hour-plus running time; we see skinny, interchangeable blondes parading nakedly, their bodies severed and superimposed upon by vertiginous lighting effects. The film's journalistic detachment from this material eventually becomes a kind of joke that invites us to enjoy the club as a sensory rather than erotic or social experience. Wiseman has always maintained that his camera doesn't alter what it captures, but this assertion has become even more complex in the director's last three performance-study films. At TIFF, Crazy Horse felt like something of a recondite culmination, of both Wiseman's recent career path and the festival's tendency to cater to the individual filmgoer. Talented strippers seem to be dancing only for you, just as the luxury of automated sinks convince you that your hands are a privilege from which to rinse waste.


Joseph Jon Lanthier is a California ex-pat who writes about art and media.