My real job is to love.” – Christopher Doyle

Christopher Doyle finished his beer on stage halfway through the TIFF event, too shy to ask for more – but he managed to hold on to his brilliance to the end. This is the first part of his Little Red Audiobook from the event compiled especially for you. Enjoy!

1. On career choice:“Don’t fucking trust the system; just do your own shit.”
01.Just do your own shit by untimelythoughts

2. On the philosophy of life: “You do what you can, not what you want. This is a very important concept.”
02.You do what you can by untimelythoughts

3. On the dichotomy of thought and action: “How did we do the trick? In Chinese, we say “wenxi, wuxi” (arts vs. actions), a traditional division of labor.”
03.Wenxiwuxi by untimelythoughts

4. On who holds the authority: “A person’s authority comes from the objects he works with. Many of you spend much more time online or on computer than I do, and you are the ones who shall be telling me how to do.”
04.Objects and persons by untimelythoughts

5. On style coming from restrictions and obligations: “In the West, you are probably going to build a cave [to create the style], but for us, style comes from restrictions and obligations. That’s the cultural dichotomy of the image-making between the West and East. “
05.Dichotomy by untimelythoughts

6. On “persons and things” in cinema: “There are only three people in cinema: actors in front of camera; audience behind it; and those who are in between – most of time it is me. My real job is to love, to be trusted, to be a bridge, to be a hollow tube.”
06.Three people in cinema by untimelythoughts

7. On what it takes to be a great artist : “The function of art is to be subjectively objective. The real artist has the ability to put all of himself in, and stand back.”
07.Little Britain by untimelythoughts

8. On purity: “What you see is what we shot. I believe as an artist you shall put as much in there as what you wish to share with the audience. Editing is only secondary – I’m such as a purist!”
08.Such a purist by untimelythoughts

9. On the lure and danger of impact-making in art: “The balance between organization and impact sometimes went wrong.”
09.Balance by untimelythoughts

10. On Toronto: “Toronto is a kind of oasis, not Miami as you said.”
10.Oasis by untimelythoughts

, ,

Laugh takes away one’s strength. Laugh gives one strength. Sprinkles of youthful joy punctuate Aamir Bashir’s autumnal Harud (Autumn), completing its meticulous observation of psychology and history in contemporary Kashmir where life goes on despite the extreme tense situation and frequent outbursts of violence, elevating the narrative to a transcendental course where sorrows are inseparable from hope, miseries from beauty, individuals from history. The last film achieving this level of completeness is the veteran Russian filmmaker Sokurov’s Alexandra, a personal story in the war-torn Chechnya. Harud, however, is Aamir Bashir’s debut feature.

Laugh takes away one’s strength, and sanity. Thus our young hero Rafiq always keeps his silence and expressionlessness, whenever he is doing his dead-end odd job, or heroically helps an injured intellectual who just survived an assassination, or hanging out with friends, or helping mother taking care of his father who suddenly went insane in this war-zone. But not since Bresson’s Pickpocket are the silence gazes so meaningful. And just like Michel, Rafiq never ceases his search for truth, on his own terms.

Similar to the rare joyful moments, the minor presence of women in this war-and-politics film also demonstrates where real human strength lies. During the Q&A session, Aamir Bashir pointedly mentioned the character of Rafiq’s mother, who is the true pillar of the family when everything went wrong; and an elusive young lady, the girlfriend of the missing brother, who for Mr. Bashir is the symbol of the lost innocence of Kashmir where the filmmaker left 20 years ago for Delhi and where since became a war zone.

A good film has to be a profound but subtle biography of the filmmaker. And this biography must engage the audience. The camera of Rafiq’s missing brother, who is a photographer, is not only central in advancing the narrative, but also central in mitigating the division between art and life, the artist and the audience. Rafiq sees his world through the camera’s lens; we see with him; and we see Rafiq’s shining eyes from the opposite direction through the opposite side of the camera. And eventually, the lens is non other than the filmmaker’s lens. Few films are able to incorporate the representational and the reflexive so lucidly and flawlessly.

According to Mr. Bashir, the film was shot in a very short period of time with largely a local first-time ensemble and occasional professionals (Rafiq’s father is played by Iran’s Reza Raji). The characters and story are preconceived, but there are lots of spontaneous takes.

For me, this film is a perfect blend of neorealism, epic beauty, rich details and subtle sensibility, so characteristic of the Iranian and Indian art cinemas. If there is any film tradition that is able to defy the dogma created by both Western commercial cinema and the “cinemathequesque” cinema (as seen in TIFF’s “Essential 100” list), it will be either from West Asia or South Asia.

In an interview, Aamir Bashir proudly points out that all the major participants in the making of Harud are new and young. Despite a lack of funds, he believes, this will be the new beginning for India’s art cinema. Indeed.

,

At the age of 40, Jia Zhangke finally made his way to Shanghai from the countryside of his native Shanxi via the northern metropolis Beijing. His latest documentary, I Wish I Knew, recorded interviews with an array of Shanghainese from different background: offspring of nationalist tycoon, gang leader, communist martyr, filmmakers and movie stars – most of which dispersed to Hong Kong and Taiwan after the revolution – as well as an aging socialist model worker, a middle-aged communist cadre and a young celebrity blogger – all of them grew up entirely under People’s Republic’s flag but whose core “memories of life” are tellingly different from one another.

In the past 10, 20, 30, 50, or 100 years, just how many people in China have made similar journeys from the country to cities, or from the North to the South (and vice versa)? Countless. But Jia is one of the few in recent memory who travels conscientiously as a public artist who intends to document a national sensibility.

I call Jia a “public artist”  for a reason. He is never really a “public intellectual”. The greatest strength of his films is their authenticity in capturing the disposition and manners of the Chinese as a people, although they are too often on the mildly melancholy side. But the range of his portraits, while expanding, is still very limited both geographically and historically, and the discourse in his films is never deep. His use of historical and cultural references is always apparent to the point of banality, although not easy to spot for a non-Chinese. Jia’s films give China’s recent history (“public history” if I may) an authentic personal touch, yet his films are never truly individual – they are shared dreams of a nation that had been starved of public culture for a very long time, and those dreams are often crude. This has everything to do with Jia’s own positioning as an individual, for his personal history is very much the public history of China with the sewing machine and bicycles manufactured in Shanghai (he mentioned in his introduction to TIFF’s screening), kitsch revolutionary song and dance routines before 1980s and Hong Kong pops after, both of which he quoted extensively in his films, as well as events of newspaper-clipping worth, such as Beijing Olympics and the Three Gorges. His thematic range and motifs are limited. Provincial in nature, he never ventures into territories of the fringe, the esoteric, or the absurd, as his urban contemporaries Jiang Wen (Devil at the Doorstep; The Sun Also Rises) and Lou Ye (Suzhou River; Spring Fever) did.

Mind you, the last paragraph is not a criticism of Jia. On the contrary, I believe Jia is an unintentional but excellent ethnographer, and emic one that is, and often reflexive. He himself is consistently the departure point of his search for the essence of contemporary China: he was one of the “singers” in Platform. When Jia reaches his celebirty height in the world of cinema, naturally, film business itself becomes the departure point: in I Wish I Knew, more than half of the interviewees  have direct relations to the history of Chinese cinema.

Interestingly, the most telling segment of I Wish I Knew is the interview with the only non-Shanghainese in the documentary – Hou Hsiao-hsien, who in 1997 made the exquisite Flowers of Shanghai, a story about the 19th-century courtesans in a Shanghai brothel and their ambiguous love affairs with their clients. Hou is not only a great modernist stylist, but also a true intellectual. According to him, the emergence of romantic love is one of the most significant elements in the shaping of modern Chinese sensibility. To validate Hou’s assertion, one can check out his works such as Dust in the Wind or Flowers of Shanghai– one can also watch all Jia Zhangke’s films which are intellectually and stylistically influenced by Hou.

As ethnographers, both Jia and Hou succeeded in capturing a vague feeling of romance that often left unconsumed. I disagree with them in that I don’t think romantic love is new, but I strongly sympathize with that lingering feeling of unfulfillment that distinguishes their films.

Smoke in Your Eyes in Three Times(Hou, 2005):

The old man sings I Wish I Knew (Jia, 2010):

 

Films are celluloid dreams. For that reason alone, most films are redundant, because there is really no need of extra fiction, mystery, drama or special effects, and there is no need of philosophy and polemics. Anything you hear and see on the street, as soon as put on screen, is immediately a dream, a poem, a story, a testimony, a proof, and a thesis. From this point of view, anyone with a camera can be somewhat an artist.

But what distinguishes a true artist is his ability to engage the sustained rhythm of life in front of camera without being overwhelmed by it, or running away from it, as well as his ability to unfold what he has seen to his audience with passionate but dignified intimacy. His audience thus become a genuine part of the life on screen which otherwise might be totally unfamiliar to them.

Frederick Wiseman  is such a rare artist. Last year he brought the engrossing and meticulously observed La danse, a documentary on the Paris Opera Ballet to TIFF. This year it’s some amateur Texan boxers’ turn. Again, Boxing Gym is a gripping portrait of universal humanity that expressed itself in a particular form within the confinement of a particular time, place and institution. A description of the film can be found here. In the Q & A session, Mr. Wiseman made the following points:

  • Institutionalized violence is a topic that attracts his attention. He had made films on state-sanctioned violence before. This time the focus is on non-state but ritualized violence in the form of boxing.
  • He practiced boxing when he was younger.
  • Boxing Gym, a film about amateur boxers in a garage-like gym in Texas, was shot at the same time of La danse, a film about top French ballet dancers.
  • There are inherent similarities between boxing and dancing, not least in their common emphasis on physical control and attempts to grasp rhythm.
  • Catching rhythm was also what he was doing as a filmmaker.
  • There is no music in the film? No, there is! Lots of! All the time!
  • This film has no narrative? No, there is (it’s up to you to figure it out)!
  • How long did it take to find the right gym for the documentary? 15 seconds! “As soon as I entered it, I knew it was a perfect gym!”
  • How long did it take to make people feel comfortable in front of camera? 15 minutes! “It sounds unbelievable, but people do get used to it very quickly!”

La danse (2009):

,

Sometimes it’s hard to say what’s more important: the book you are reading or your random thoughts generated by the reading? the music you are listening to or your seemingly irrelevant memories and emotions brought out by the music? the film you are watching or your feelings (including boredom) aggravated by the image and sound in front of you?

Sometimes it’s even harder to decide what’s the true intention of the artist (author/auteur) behind all his bombast or solemnity: Is he genuinely communicating his ideas and vision, or is he playing with words, images, and sound, simply to elicit responses from his audience? Such is the case with Jean-Luc Godard’s latest, Film Socialism, the very first screening of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. 

I would not have known if Godard has anything important to say, for the film – mostly in French – was screened almost without subtitle, on purpose. However, as with other Godard’s works, this is a very verbal film. People on screen are talking all the time, yet what they are talking about, I suspect, is totally irrelevant. The only important thing is that they are talking, and you are watching and listening to their talking, and you are thinking, and you are observing your own thoughts in the darkness of the theatre among hundreds of others who may or may well not be thinking what you are thinking about, and you are observing this very last fact at the same time.

Yes, the Ryerson Theatre was packed. I’m sure Godard’s disciples among them were thrilled, for this is an exceedingly handsome film, digital cinematography at its best. If we treat cinema not as a dramatic form but a branch of visual arts, architecture, or music (the film is labeled as “a symphony in three movements”), if we don’t try to contemplate the meanings of the sight and sound in front us – don’t even care to understand the dialogues or voice-over (there is plenty here) and subtitles / intertitles – simply view them as part of overall design, we might see the film as what it is, with all its original beauty.

And I’m sure Cinematheque veterans who are not Godard’s disciples were well-prepared for this test and had a good time in turn.

And I’m sure there are many “newbie” who were completely puzzled and frustrated. The miracle is: although there was a continuing stream of audience fleeing the theatre, most of them stayed.

As I walked out into an autumnal Toronto evening after the screening, I overheard one young lad with lean figure, pale complexion and a big pair of glasses speaking cynically to his friends: “Next year, they will come back …”

Manohla Dargis of the New York Times thought “an improvement in my French and many more fully translated subtitles before I can begin to get a tentative grasp on it”. She was, of course, completely wrong. One might grasp the essence of the film without understanding one word of French, as this reviewer has brilliantly done.

What’s this film to me is not the film itself, but what it bought out in me. Often I don’t judge the film by how enjoyable it is in theatre, but by to what degree it would sharpen my ears and eyes whenI left the theatre. Indeed, Godard’s film has the power to shed new light on the streets outside theatres, and the film itself, because of its overall handsomeness and flashes of exquisteness, is not easily forgettable. For that reason alone, it is a success.

This one-minute trailer of Film Socialism is a masterpiece on its own –  slow it down and you almost have the complete 97-minute film:

 The closest thing in music:

,