TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTVAL 2006

By Geoff Brown

From some angles the Toronto International Film Festival might seem the least likely of the mainstream festivals to have anything to do with silent film.  Though North America's biggest cinematic bonanza is structured like a multi-layered cake,  the layer in Toronto that dominates the public mind and Canada's national press is the prodigious icing of brand-new Hollywood films, plus all their attendant hoop-la.  This is a city crazed about movies.  Every night during the festival's run in September crowds flock outside theatres, hotels, and restaurants, hoping for a glimpse of someone, something, even if it's only Brad Pitt's shoulder.  Newspaper gossipers have a ball, even noting the fashion choices worn at parties by the festival's organisers and programmers:  luckily, not something that happens at the Giornate del Cinema Muto, or the Nottingham British silent weekends.

And yet history and the glitz of the past are not forgotten. Toronto was the birthplace of Mary Pickford after all - I've seen the plaque - and silent cinema gets its respect.  In 2003, the festival devoted three programmes to Nell Shipman's maverick hymns to animals, women's independence, and the pioneer spirit;  her cameras may have turned mostly across the border in America, but she was certainly the first Canadian woman to direct a feature film.  (Rush to correct me if necessary.)    Since 2000, the Toronto festival has also regularly given silent classics the gala treatment with live orchestra;  last year at the 30th edition it was the turn of Flaherty's Nanook of the North, accompanied for the first time by Gabriel Thibaudeau's atmospheric score, complete with Inuit throat singers.

And this year, 2006?  Something completely different:  a new silent feature, of a kind, from a contemporary Canadian maverick, Guy Maddin.  Its title is Brand upon the Brain!, and the exclamation point is entirely justified. No throat singers here, but Toronto's riotously ornate Elgin Theatre (otherwise colourlessly known as the VISA Screening Room) still resounded with the most esoteric live accompaniment.  Here were members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra under conductor-conductor Jason Staczek;  a singer mimicking the castrato voice; three foley artists, dressed in what looked like white lab coats and Wellington boots, synchronising sound effects;  plus the intermittent voice of a narrator, actor Louis Negin, filling in the back plot or exposing characters' thoughts.  The presentation costs were reported at around 20,000 Canadian dollars;  more than the budget of many independent features, most of Maddin's included.   Gala screenings of Brand upon the Brain!, I suspect, will be rare, though it's been booked into the New York Film Festival.

Brand upon the Brain
What kind of silent film is this, then?  In form Maddin's film assumes the shape of a serial:  the 97-minute running time is divided into twelve "chapters".  In place of Pearl White's exploits or the dreamlike activities of Fantômas, we are offered the reminiscences of a character billed as Guy Maddin himself, recalling a boyhood on the island of Black Notch.  Never a dull moment here:  it's home to a lighthouse, an orphanage, his repressed mother with a birthmark shaped like Romania, his mad scientist of a father, and a visitation by two childhood detectives.  Among the images, inspired by Maddin's love of German Expressionism, gothic horror stories, and Hollywood's pulp junkyard, a mystery looms that needs solving:  why do so many orphans have wounds on their heads?  Maybe the answer has something to do with the mad scientist's syringe... 

Maddin has always been drawn to cinema's past, particularly those fascinating crossover years at the end of the 1920s between the silent and sound eras.  The Heart of the World, his masterly short, commissioned for the 2000 Toronto festival, pushed Soviet stylistics to insane limits, with 850 cuts inside six minutes:  imagine a combination of Strike! and Aelita whirled in a spin dryer.  In Careful, Archangel and other features Maddin the vampire has sucked blood from German mountain films, early horror films, the artifice of early talkies.  A full-blown silent feature from Maddin, then, comes as no surprise.

The film's idiosyncrasy is no surprise, either.  What silent film ever purposely adopted the nervous, juddery camera style pressed upon us by Maddin's cameraman Benjamin Kasulke?  None that I know.  In these blown-up Super-8 images, Maddin pushes to excess the experience of watching a silent film in some battered dupe of a dupe of dupe, the images grainy, the celluloid constantly jumping over bad splices.  If only for reasons of professional pride, film archivists and restorers should hate Brand upon the Brain! 

The heat of silent cinema purists may rise over other aspects of Maddin's opus.  It doesn't look like a silent film;  nor does it sound like one.  Into its presentation, by chance or design, Maddin has squeezed sound elements scattered in film history across some 30 years.  By their loud kisses, smashed plates, roaring winds and fizzing test-tubes, the foley artists position the film in the few years after Warners' 1926 Don Juan, when lips often stayed mute but soundtracks burst into distracting synchronised effects.  The narration - an encumbrance, I felt - resurrects the "film explainers" of the earliest exhibition days, or the noble tradition of Japanese benshi, who narrated by the side of the screen well into the mid-1930s.  Add to this brew the castrato singing and Staczek's sympathetic old-time score:  Maddin gives us a sound overload.

But quirks and impurities accepted, was it all fun?  Yes and no.  There is always a time limit for Maddin's campy fun and games, and when every element - visuals, plot, character - is placed inside quotation marks the limit runs out at around an hour.  The Heart of the World, six minutes long, remains Maddin's masterpiece partly because of its brevity.  Still, Brand upon the Brain! is far more watchable than its feature-length predecessor, the fatiguingly silly The Saddest Music in the World.  Toronto audiences certainly fell for its bizarre charm.

Oddly, Maddin's film isn't this year's only new silent feature.  Rotterdam's festival this year showed another pantomimed production, A Short Film about the Indio Nacional (or, The Prolonged Sorrow of Filipinos), a three-part salute to the struggles and hopes of ordinary Filipinos in the 1890s, from director Raya Martin.  No place in Toronto for that;  but  some 300 other titles remained to wade through in search of pleasure.

Rescue Dawn
Sometimes pleasure was found in unexpected places.  Even after Werner Herzog's recent rebirth with Grizzly Man, the thought of Rescue Dawn - a Hollywood-style expansion of his 1997 documentary Little Dieter Needs to Fly - didn't exactly quicken the heartbeat.  The heart quickened nonetheless in this recreation of a German-born American Navy pilot's imprisonment in a Laos POW camp during the Vietnam War;  the action's staging and the taut pacing alone saw to that.

Herzog's tightrope walk is exciting too.  On the one hand, he's keeping absolute faith with his art-house past:  in Christian Bale's tightly coiled performance as the prisoner determined to escape, you see reflected Klaus Kinski's crazed characters and the epic fights between man and nature from Fitzcarraldo or Aguirre, Wrath of God. From another standpoint, Herzog is oblitering his past.  He's going for the multiplex audiences, delivering a hard, character-driven American action movie, straight down the line.  No questions asked;  no debunking of patriotism.   What you see is what you get.  Only the most elevated of Hernzog admirers could be untouched by the vigour and sharp attack of Rescue Dawn.

Old-timers in general enjoyed a successful festival.  No bolt-from-the-blue neophyte director arrived to cause a stir.  But tongues wagged about the Portuguese miracle Manoel de Oliviera - 98 in December, and the world's oldest functioning director.  Possibly he now directs sitting down;  but there are no signs in Belle toujours, a quirky homage to Bun_uel and Jean-Claude Carrière's classic Belle de jour, of any slackness of grip.  To call this a direct sequel to the 1967 film is misleading, though the two chief characters return: Michel Piccoli's roué Husson, and the ice-cold prostitute Séverine - originally played by Catherine Deneuve, now Bulle Ogier in a blonde wig.  Oliviera wishes to pay winking homage to a master film, and does so;  but he also pursues his own agenda, using the characters' accidental meeting and the two beautifully nuanced central performances to muse touchingly about the changes life brings and the workings of old age.   This is Oliviera's most accessible film since Je rentre à la maison in 2001.

Coeurs
Yet for sheer intensity of pleasure, Oliviera was pipped by the latest film of Alain Resnais, a babe in arms at 84.  He knows all about changes in life:  the director of that cinematic Rubik cube L'Année dernière à Marienbad has now progressed to crisp film adaptations of popular theatre and operetta.  For Coeurs, he turned to the play Private Fears in Public Places by the British playwright Alan Ayckbourn (last encountered in Resnais' hands in the elegant two-part Smoking/No Smoking).  The setting has switched countries;  we're now in Paris, in a snowy winter, following the chafings of the interlocked characters in an estate agent's office, an apartment or two, and a hotel bar in the upwardly mobile Bercy area. 

At one level, Coeurs is a miracle of artifice.  Resnais is never afraid of the studio look or the exquisitely pre-planned camera movement.  The film's surface offers a visual ballet.  Characters and cameras dance slowly and elegantly, half tragic, half comic, through partitions, doors, frosted glass, and beaded curtains - each an eloquent component in the crafty designs of Jacques Saulnier, another Nouvelle Vague veteran.  

A desiccated film, then?   Not a bit.  The characters' pain and loneliness are palpable;  with performers like André Dussollier, Pierre Arditi, or Sabine Azéma, every facial quiver hits home, and the end of the film is very moving.  Brad Pitt's shoulders looked especially small after this.