Meet the Monsters

From Toronto, a glimpse of this year's most bracing films

A critic's report from a film festival like Toronto, where something like 300 features were unveiled from September 6 through 16, can be something like a Rorschach test — or, at least, it can be something like the Rorschach test depicted in Paul Thomas Anderson's TIFF entry, The Master, in which Joaquin Phoenix's Freddie Quell sees in every ink blot a reflection of his own genital fixations. It's definitely possible that my response to the 24 movies I saw at the festival says less about the films themselves than what I was already thinking about anyway. But even with that caveat, it certainly seemed that the festival showcased movies about freedom in its distinctly American, notional "dream" variety — its global effects in terms of politics, economics, ideology and control, and its internal promotion and export via commercial movies.

First and foremost, there was The Master, which had its North American premiere the first weekend, setting a bar that nothing I saw after could clear. Haunted by the mythic opulence of mid-century Hollywood, it evokes a Scientology-like cult as a sideshow, convincing followers they can step into movie-like visions of their own past through methods that mimic the method of Stanislavski and Strasberg, brought into the movies of the day by mid-century stars such as Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe. It's also a psych exam of a nation fresh off a triumph as superheroes on the international stage, pulling together a dream future in the wake of incomprehensible horrors and unparalleled victory. What happens when you don't, or can't, conform to a collective dream?

If The Masteris a journey inside a national identity just after that nation has been crowned the kings of the world, the nonfiction hybrid The Last Time I Saw Macaois, perhaps, the inverse: a document of a former colony made by descendants of its former colonizer (Portuguese filmmakers João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata), and a drama about a loss of control. Hollywood's reach is felt here, too: Directly referencing Josef Von Sternberg's Jane Russell-starring Macao and the genre of cabaret noir, it's a travel essay made narrative by the appropriation of tropes of classic movies.

What do we do when we travel, if not compare the new experiences we're acquiring to expectations culled from past experience and consumption of stories, images and films? "We record everything," says Amy Adams' wife-behind-the-guy in The Master. "Through all lifetimes." By "we," she means not just her fellow devotees of "the Cause," but also humans; the Master's teachings merely give those who sign up the mechanism of playback. The idea that we can flip back and forth through collected experience like scrolling a clip would seem to offer the key to unlocking both Terrence Malick's creation-spanning The Tree of Life, and his much more intimately scaled TIFF entry, To the Wonder. Starring Ben Affleck as a man who marries an exotic Frenchwoman and also falls in love with a lady from his hometown, the film revitalizes Malick's long obsession with man as both a creature of nature and nature's enemy, by setting heightened, hyper-real depictions of men and women in primal states against the banality of the modern real world. Apparently substantially autobiographical and elliptical almost to the point of self-parody, Wonderis both solipsistic and, in its portrayal of seemingly mild-mannered adults as wild animals struggling within an over-engineered society, it's as radical a portrait of this American moment as The Masteris of its.

"Shouldn't revolutionary cinema employ a revolutionary style?" asks a character in Something in the Air, Olivier Assayas' autobiographical drama about a teenage artist and activist torn between creative instincts and political subculture in post-'68 Euro-Bohemia. This movie's style is distinctly Assayasian: a slow accumulation of interconnected character and period detail (including audacious soundtrack choices), spinning on the axis of a sprawling party scene. From its early depictions of vandalism for the cause and sex as foreplay to art criticism to a tragedy of literally explosive carelessness and the burnout that follows, it delivers the encapsulation of the intangible that the title promises, even if that means that, like the movement it's set within, Air seems to lose its thrust and thread as its protagonists mature.

But no film I saw embodied this marriage of revolutionary style and spirit better than Spring Breakers, Harmony Korine's avant-garde trashy-party-flick-meets-post-Scarface-gangster-tragedy, set in an America engaged in a turf war between right and wrong, between total nihilists and anyone Pollyannaish enough to believe that a social contract is still applicable in late capitalism. With the narrative logic of a feature-length music video, Spring Breakers' sensibility is ironic, but hardly flippant. It's hilarious and terrifying.

A similar swirl of emotions runs through The Act of Killing, a horrifying work of art-film-as-activism in which the perpetrators of a genocide in Indonesia in the mid '60s (celebrated by that country to this day; celebrated back in the day by the U.S. as righteous Commie-killing) gleefully re-create their crimes — which they claim were influenced by Hollywood movies — for director Joshua Oppenheimer's camera. I talked to several people who walked out of the film at TIFF before its narrative arc completed, which is a mistake: Without spoiling too much, it becomes evident that Oppenheimer's intention is to make these war criminals feel the moral weight of what they've done and thus give them the punishment and shaming their country won't. Is it too little too late? Probably, but it's better than nothing.

The Ben Affleck-directed Argo, a top-shelf Hollywood historical fiction about a Hollywood solution to a historical crisis, doesn't shy away from the fact that the FUBAR situation at its center — the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-'81 — was one that U.S. policy helped to create. But in this fantasized version of true events, America is determined to fix what it broke, via an exfiltration scheme produced by a fading mogul (Alan Arkin) and an Oscar-winning makeup artist (John Goodman).

Within the context of Toronto, which has earned a reputation in recent years as the opening event of awards season, catapulting a handful of titles directly into Best Picture contention, Argois almost certainly The Artist of this year: It embodies the pleasures of Hollywood cinema in order to evangelize them, also re-creating a moment when the industry emerged from flux to thrive. It's enormously entertaining — Goodman and Arkin, in particular, are acidly funny as cynical survivors of the dead old-studio system bridging into the just-dawning era of the blockbuster — but it has no rough edges, and it never feels remotely unsafe. It's such a beautifully mounted Hollywood production that even as it's depicting a historical event in which the players were in real mortal danger, it never does anything to risk losing the viewer's comprehension or sympathy.

The thing Argodoesn't deliver — as these others did — is the sense that the filmmaker wanted to create a monster, a mysterious, unwieldy object that exists to be pulled apart rather than passively watched, that is completed by us, by our reactions to the inkblot. Or, to quote Jem Cohen's introduction to a TIFF screening of Museum Hours, his engaging, melan-comic fiction-doc hybrid set in Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum, "If I knew exactly what it was, then it wouldn't be the movie I wanted to make."

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