Festivals: Wavelengths at Toronto
A couple of years ago, fears arose that the Toronto International Film Festival might do something to Wavelengths, the respected and important section dedicated to experimental and nonnarrative cinema. Something not good, the rumors rumbled: maybe eliminating it, or scaling it down, or folding it into another section. These concerns flowed from observing the diminished status that the former Cinematheque Ontario endured as the newly renamed TIFF Cinematheque, transferred from its former home at the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall to the massive TIFF Bell Lightbox.
The core of Wavelengths, mostly short experimental work, continues to screen at Jackman, like a rebellious tribute to a bygone era. But would the sheer weight and noise of the Oscar marketing machine that rumbles annually through Toronto drown out this noncommercial program?
A Field in England
The fears proved unfounded. If anything, the past two years have seen Wavelengths become one of TIFF’s genuine triumphs. Retiring the Visions section and folding its fare into Wavelengths turned out to be the festival’s best move since moving from its former epicenter in tony uptown Yorkville to the more logical downtown zone where the Lightbox was built. Extraordinary features such as Tsai Ming-liang’s Stray Dogs, Albert Serra’s Story of My Death, Raya Martin and Mark Peranson’s La ultima pelicula, Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England, Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez’s Manakamana, Ramon Zürcher’s The Strange Little Cat, Wang Bing’s ’Til Madness Do Us Part, and Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture would have probably landed in Visions, had it still existed.
Un Conte de Michel Montaigne
This year’s edition of Wavelengths, curated by the program’s sharp-eyed Andrea Picard, demonstrated how linking longer-form radical cinema with shorter forms creates a rich, fascinating dialogue. That especially came through in such side-by-side groupings as Serra’s mesmerizing what-if encounter between an aging Casanova and a thriving Dracula, with A Field in England, Jean-Marie Straub’s Un Conte de Michel Montaigne, and João Pedro Rodrigues’s The King’s Body. (The latter pair of shorter works screened on an especially vivid bill with Miguel Gomes’s characteristically puckish found-footage comedy Redemption.)
Story of My Death
Taken together, the foursome presents an original re-think of various European historical tropes—the libertine upper class, sexuality’s threat to the ruling order, impending social disorder—framed in the context of the human body. They also tend to employ a great quantity of spoken dialogue and text. That’s not a surprise for Straub, who uses selections from the second section of Montaigne’s monumental Essays, but it is for Serra, whose actors in Story of My Death give far more deliberately dramatic performances than those on view in his previous movies, Birdsong and Honor de Cavalleria.
The King's Body
The four films are also the slightest bit naughty. Rodrigues has become one of the most consistently witty, clever, and ingenious filmmakers around, as amply demonstrated in The Last Time I Saw in Macao and Morning of St. Anthony’s Day. In The King’s Body, he hilariously plays off the mythic image of the Portuguese king, Afonso Henriques, to sublime homoerotic effect. Similarly subversive, Wheatley (working with regular co-writer Amy Jump) upsets the traditional movie depictions of the English Civil War in A Field in England with an increasingly wigged-out atmosphere that spins out of control when certain herbs are consumed by unhinged combatants of different classes.
Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper
The psychedelia that explodes in Wheatley’s film was par for the course in a trippy Wavelengths edition, whose shorts programs reliably provide a fun, mind-altering time for all. Echoes of the psychedelia that runs riot through the compulsively watchable and funny La ultima pelicula (inspired largely by Dennis Hopper’s nutty crack-up The Last Movie) could be felt in David Rimmer’s 1970 film Variations on a Cellophane Wrapper, which screened in a restored Academy print. Through a variety of filters and chemical processes, Rimmer’s classic short toys with the eye’s perception of repeated actions.
Natpwe, the feast of the spirits
Finally there was the incredible 31-minute Natpwe, the feast of the spirits, shot by filmmakers Tiane Doan na Champassak and Jean Dubrel in 16mm and Super 8 several years ago but edited last year. Natpwe depicts annual “trance rituals” in Burma with both wild abandon and an acute sense of tempo. The Burmese ecstasies, which sometimes erupt into what looks like violence (though it’s hard to pin down amid the furious action), contrast in cosmic ways with the horrors of the Khmer Rouge death camps in neighboring Cambodia depicted in The Missing Picture.
Taken together in the context of the Wavelengths program, these extremes of life and death point to something more cinematically dramatic than 90% of the traditional drama that defines most of the Oscar season landscape.