VIFF Notes: Happy Accidents

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The Vancouver International Film Festival is an audience-friendly gorge with a geographically tight layout of venues and a welcome propensity for keeping the schedule running to time. It’s a mix of world cinema Big Bads that announced themselves earlier in the year (the Hanekes, the Audiards, the Caraxes,) the knottier shows waiting for partisans, and the sickly, infuriating indies that make you wonder for a brief moment if Avengers comment-section sociopaths might have a point. It has everything you want and need, save Hollywood splash and red carpet craziness. One steps into traffic while thumbing through the massive fest bible, strategizing, making connections, cursing The Master’s masters for not opening the damn thing until two days into the festival, and suddenly finds himself paying for his inattention by being grazed by a car with an equally oblivious driver. When your first thought as a subcompact comes to rest on your foot is not of family, but of possibly having to miss Holy Motors, you know you’ve got a problem.

But no harm, no foul, no Janney; the driver goes her way (hopefully to a nearby parking garage) and I limp off to the movies, always the movies, looking for odd frequencies, shared itches and compulsions. The first volley of screenings included two music documentaries, The Sound of the Bandoneon and Griot. Bandoneon suffers some from an overreliance on B-roll, but offers a surfeit of sensuality: the pink clays of Jujuy mountains, the port red walls of Buenos Aires apartments and performance halls, and the instrument itself, light glinting off its black surfaces, the coital push and pull involved in the working of it. Griot is about the Senegalese kora master Ablaye Cissoko and is a mix of staged and on-the fly sessions and a collage of Senegal itself, punctuated with superior animated sequences evoking fronds, grasses, rippling water. Both films are shot through with melancholy for the prominence of their subjects’ art being eroded by pop modernity and the indifference of cultural commissars. There is a live performance tonight by Ablaye Cissoko and Griot’s director (and trumpeter) Volker Goetze; their music is beautiful, and I can’t imagine indifference even once entering into one’s response to it.

Midnight’s Children is a prime example of Big Book adaptation straining to find a filmic structure that does not bulge here and sprawl there. Its visual felicity is only occasional. But the editing at least has some snap and scoot, and the film as a whole is valuable for the moments of pure Rushdiean wit. Its first hour plays as a comic tragedy of lineage, sex, and colonialism, of parents up in their children’s bedroom business  and (literally) their dreams. A sharp cast makes it play like a dream for a good long while before one’s patience is tested by narrative ungainliness. Pablo Larrain’s No is another matter, a nasty-funny history of ad men and the Socialist opposition to Pinochet taking full advantage of the old savage’s decision to hold the plebiscite of 1988, an election everyone knows is a sham – until it miraculously isn’t.  Gael Garcia Bernal’s performance as the ferrety, furtive, and awfully canny ad man suits Larrain’s restless, deadpan wit. No was shot on U-Matic tape, a decision that pays off marvelously; the smear and cheapness of the look and the cramped frame that heightens the sense of conspiracy and peril have sensory punch. Here’s hoping audiences used to gauzier modes of presentation find it in them to embrace this mordant, accomplished, big-spirited film.

I’ll end this brief entry with special mention of The Great Northwest, a notable and instantly mesmeric documentary in which the Portland filmmaker Mark McCormick is moved by the thrift-shop discovery of a thick scrapbook detailing a 3000 mile road trip undertaken by four women in 1958 and sets out to follow their precise path fifty years on. It consists of discrete tableaux, hard edits, and source sound: flatland buzz and hum, tourist traps and stolen diner conversations, arsenic-ridden copper pits, dead mining towns, towns abandoned and swallowed up by dammed rivers. McCormick has an unerring feel for the tedium and revelations of the road as well as its happenstance comedy. (An extended shot of him trapped amidst a cattle herd on the highway is outrageously funny in its slow-burn exasperation.) He employs intertitles to orient you to place and event, and though my taste might be for an even deeper dive into abstraction, I’m sure it will, judging by the audience’s response, prove to be plenty abstract for most. But no matter – The Great Northwest is special, a film one is happy to take up the cudgel for. Here’s hoping the next two weeks bring many more.

Still from The Great Northwest used with the filmmaker’s permission; he will be in attendance at all three VIFF screenings.