Wednesday, September 29, 2010

L.A. Zombie

This is my third out of three TIFF film reviews and I will also be writing a festival report. - David Davidson

L.A. Zombie (Bruce La Bruce, 2010)
** (Worth Seeing)

Bruce LaBruce's L.A. Zombie was enthusiastically presented by Noah Cowan at its TIFF 2010 premiere. The big controversy about the film was that it was turned away from the Melbourne International Film Festival for being too vulgar. Mr. LaBruce describes L.A. Zombie as an alien-zombie-gay-pornographic film and boasted about the zero star ranking in the Toronto Star, “Its just as hard to get no stars as it is to get four”. L.A. Zombie begins with scenic establishment shots of a Los Angeles beach with the water crashing against rocks and sand. The water goes off into the horizon, seagulls are standing on a rock and then an eerie naked zombie (François Sagat; a freakish male porn star) comes out of the ocean, ready to wreck havoc. In an original twist of the Romeroean zombie fable where traditionally the undead infects victims by biting them, François as the zombie has to stick his alien penis into his victims and then ejaculate a black fluid onto their open wounds, whether it is in their stomachs or a hole in their head.

In an interview between Bruce LaBruce and the artistic director of the Locarno Film Festival Olivier Père, Mr. LaBruce says “Zombies can very easily be interpreted as a fear of AIDS. So to create a zombie who heals and brings people back to life through sexual contact and the dissemination of fluids is a strong reversal of the usual paranoid representation of gay sex and AIDS” . In L.A. Zombie François comes out of the ocean looking like a decease, he is bald, has deformed vampire molars, he is muscular and naked, and is painted in bruised blues, bacteria greens and irritated reds. His first victim does not say much. The victim picks up a staggered and shredded clothes François on the side of the lonely highway. There is a fade to black. The car crashes. The man dies. For a brief moment there is so much compassion directed towards this man with the camera lingering around the corpses accompanied by a melancholy tune. This driver picked up the deceased zombie that this led to his early death. There is a moment of silence before the Zombie infects him. Los Angeles homelessness is a supposed subject of the film, similar to LaBruce’s Hustler White (1995), but the gorilla style of inconspicuous filming usually films the Zombie from a distance who has little contact with the surrounding homeless people. I guess, it is more a portrait of the L.A. homeless/schizophrenics in the vein of something like, say, The Soloist (2009), but it is not a subject that is fully explored instead of just presented.

Mr. La Bruce seems to be a Toronto fixation as the Cinema 2 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox (approximately four-hundred seats) was packed to see L.A. Zombie. The tiff Bell Lightbox artistic director, Noa Cowan made it appear that the festival has always been a long advocate for the local director and prides itself on premiering his films. The work of Bruce LaBruce is also written about in the book Toronto On Film (tiff publications; 2009). My criticism of the L.A. Zombie is that it is embarrassingly shot and the set design seemed like it was at an elementary school level. The performances were done in a canned theater style, similarly to Sidney Lumet’s gay murder mystery Deathtrap (1982). While the closest relative to it that I can thing of is those late night nymphic soft-core porn movies that would play on Quebecois broadcasting networks. You know, the ones with those bizarre child-like fairy tales with weird costumes and unabashed sex every five minutes. L.A. Zombie leaves one scratching their head more then anything else. Anyways, I can appreciate all the recommendations (i.e. Eye Weekly, Mubi, Cinema Scope, Locarno, TIFF) and I hope more people get a chance to see L.A. Zombie. It is probably going to be a little seen film, and the more recommendations, hopefully will lead to more people seeing it. What the film truly showcases is the visualization of Bruce LaBruce’s imagination and no prudish morals should interfere with its presentation and distribution. – David Davidson

(BELL Lightbox, 350 King Street West, Toronto, ON)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sad Movie

This is my second out of three TIFF film reviews and I will also be writing a festival report. - David Davidson

Promises Written in the Water (Vincent Gallo, 2010)
**** (Masterpiece)

Vincent Gallo’s third full-length feature Promises written the water is radical, impolite, and punk. Though it is a little unclear, the story is about a guy, Kevin (Vincent Gallo), who is yearning an ex-girlfriend and opts for a job as a funeral director. There he takes up the role of the host of the funeral home, driver of the hearse, helps out at the mortuary and picks up the corpses. This is similar to Vincent Gallo who spreads himself all over filmmaking by being the director, editor, and producer of his films. The funeral director title is also apt to describe the guy as in his films he usually kills off his girlfriends.

He sees this women Malory (Delfine Bafort; a gorgeous thirty-one-year old Belgium model) and they go out to eat where they have a conversation about Kevin’s ex-girlfriend. In this scene, Kevin recites that Colette has left him for a fifty-five year old and that they are going to Thailand together, but she said that he would always be her favorite. What is so fascinating here is that he repeats the line five times, almost like a record skipping, but with slight variation; emphasizing the nuances of his performance, thematically bridging the film, while also expanding and creating a distinct film-language. Vincent Gallo’s music albums (i.e. When) provide interesting extensions to his films. The two are very lyrical like how the guitar strings hint towards the films tranquility and an EP like So Sad hints towards his sadness and repetition.

Kevin walks into his old apartment and picks up a pair of shoes. A mafioso tries to get him to take up a new job. He refuses. There are a lot of close-ups on his sorrowful mug and the Bressonian scenes of him walking emphasize his loneliness. Kevin pours his heart out to Malory, tells her he loves her, asks her to marry him, he plans for them to move into his house and he has money. Though she brings men home, Kevin wants her to find the one person to make her happy. It is hinted that Malory has a terminal illness and the interspaced scenes of her naked in a white bathtub foreshadow her eventual suicide. Kevin’s love for her though, his promises to her written in the water, are part of the baggage he will carry after she goes. The water motif is brought forward at the begging of the film with its opening shot of Lake Los Angeles.

There are obvious influences of Vincent Gallo’s recent collaboration with Francis Ford Coppela on the movie Tetro. The two are digital productions, they both are shot in black-and-white, Vincent Gallo’s bad ass is more rounded compared to The Brown Bunny, and they both include a dance sequence. Though Francis Ford Coppola said his cinematography is more inspired by Elia Kazan and Powell & Pressburger. Vincent Gallo and his director of photography Masanobu Takayanagi are harder to characterize but there are some semblances with works by Ashby, Antonioni, Dreyer, Cronenberg, Cumming, and von Trier. In this film there is now more dialogue, especially compared to The Brown Bunny where words were very sparse.

Vincent Gallo is one of the more exciting contemporary independent directors. He takes roles in larger films to support his independent productions. The latest film he acts in is Jerzy Skolimowski’s Essential Killing. Like Jacques Tati’s Mr. Hulot’s character, the Vincent Gallo by Vincent Gallo character is a reoccurring projection of a melancholy romantic. When Kevin helps out the mortician, carrying a corpse and says, “ I don’t want to do it.” He still goes ahead with it. There is a strange urgency in his films. His uncompromising perseverance to keep making the kind of movies he wants to make places him, alongside Harmony Karine, as one of today’s punk American independents. John Cassavetes would be proud. – David Davidson

(Isabel Bader Theater, 93 Charles Street West, Toronto, ON)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

TIFF Review (Boxing Gym)

This is my first out of three TIFF film reviews and I will also be writing a festival report. - David Davidson

Boxing Gym (Frederick Wiseman, 2010) *Director in attendance
*** (A Must-See)

There are three superstar documentary auteurs whose films reflect both their areas of interest and their recognizable approach to filming them. They are Frederick Wiseman, whose approach is of that of the fly-on-the-wall observer and his subjects are institutions; Errol Morris, whose technique is interviewing and his subjects vary though the focus is usually politically topical; and Werner Herzog, who has the uncanny ability to render the familiar into the surreal. Coincidently all three of these filmmakers have new movies premiering at TIFF 2010, Mr. Wiseman has Boxing Gym, Mr. Herzog is bringing his 3-D Caves of Forgotten Dreams, and Errol Morris’s new doc is called Tabloid.

Frederick Wiseman’s PBS documentary Boxing Gym is about an old-school boxing gym in Austin, Texas that is run by old-timer Richard Lords. It was filmed in 2008 before Mr. Wiseman filmed La dance – le ballet de l’Opera de Paris. Mr. Wiseman is a man who thinks that boxing is a noble sport; elegant and choreographed. He said he chose the Lords Gym after only twenty seconds within it. It is an obvious choice because the people there and the building have so much character. The gym boasts a plethora of boxing paraphernalia, colorful characters, and well-worn equipment. On the wall there are Nike boxing posters with Greek wrestlers (a subtle way to contextualize the history of the sport the goes back to ancient Rome), and a poster of Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull (1980) [a way to contextualize the representation of the sport; I would also add King Vidor’s The Champ (1931) and Robert Wise’s The Set-Up (1949) and Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956)].

Mr. Wiseman is both the director and editor of the film. Though it is in the editing process that Mr. Wiseman’s vision comes together, as he moulds all his cinéma vérité footage, without any voice-of-god narration, into a portrait of a community. This community of both sexes, people of different life stages, multi-ethnicity and viewpoints form a positive microcosm for the United States of America.

The way the documentary progress is also very interesting. It begins with a sunrise and the younger gym members training. Children training and babies in cribs are one of the first subjects and as Boxing Gym progresses the age of the subjects increase. By the end there has been the entire life cycle including adolescents, emerging adults, adults, and seniors. Boxing is with these people their entire lives and it hints that it is a sport that is passed down through parents. As well to contrast the opening sunset (which in the bottom of the frame includes the small sign that indicates where at the Lords Gym), the film ends with an extended sequence of sunsets.

The documentary is not about the boxing fights themselves, if you wanted that Mr. Wiseman rebuttal is that you can just turn on TV any evening of the week. Boxing Gym is more concentrated on the process of becoming physically fit and disciplined. Here is Roland Barthe's on boxing from his essay The World of Wrestling in the book Mythologies:
This public knows very well the distinction between wrestling and boxing; it knows that boxing is a Jansenist sport, based on a demonstration of excellence. One can bet on the outcome of a boxing-match: with wrestling, it would make no sense. A boxing- match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, on the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the passage of time. The spectator is not interested in the rise and fall of fortunes; he expects the transient image of certain passions. Wrestling therefore demands an immediate reading of the juxtaposed meanings, so that there is no need to connect them. The logical conclusion of the contest does not interest the wrestling-fan, while on the contrary a boxing-match always implies a science of the future.
Boxing Gym is about this "science of the future" and how a person through will, training and dedication can overcome perceived limitations and take up the sport. It is about how one refines ones body and familiarizing oneself with the sport to the point where training and acting becomes second nature; a similar subject explored in La dance – le ballet de l’Opera de Paris.

Boxing Gym is relatively limited to what goes on in the gym except for a few apt establishing shots. These shots not only establish the setting, the time of the day and the progress of the films cycle, but also they contextualize the gym within a larger city, thus rendering these personal experiences more universal. There is a wife who wants to buy her husband a membership to the gym. She wants to give her husband a chance to pursuit his dreams. There is also a weighty gym member who trains really hard. He is pushing himself, giving it his all. This sequence renders the participants in Mr. Wiseman’s films overarching common attributes, which is “a perpetual desire to see their dignity recognized”. It is this celebration of individual efforts that make Mr. Wiseman’s film so rich. – David Davidson

(AMC Yonge & Dundas 24, Toronto, ON)