by Marc Glassman
The Best of the Decade: An Alternative View A curated selection of 41 films based on the results of a poll that TIFF Cinematheque’s Senior Programmer, James Quandt, conducted among a panel of over 60 film curators, historians, archivists and programmers world-wide. Films include: Platform (2000), The World (2004) and Still Life (2006) by Jia Zhang-ke; Blissfully Yours (2002), Syndromes and a Century (2006) and Tropical Malady (2004) by Apichatpong Weerasethakul; L’intrus (2004) and Beau Travail (1999) by Clair Denis; Abbas Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us (1999); Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000); Agnès Varda’s Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse (2000); Jean-Luc Godard’s Éloge de l’amour (2001); Hayao Miyazaki’s surrealist fable Spirited Away (2001); Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her (2002); Ingmar Bergman’s Saraband (2003); David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005); Tsai Ming-liang’s I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (2006); Cristian Mungiu’s 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007) and Terrence Malick’s The New World (2006).
Series starts on January 21 and runs until February 23at the AGO’s Jackman Hall, 317 Dundas Street West (McCaul Street entrance). For more info, check: www.cinemathequeontario.ca
TIFF Cinematheque curator James Quandt has assembled an impressive backwards look at the past ten years of cinema. Make no mistake about it though; this is “an alternative view.” Imagine a group of music professors, theorists and composers assembling a “best of” list for the ‘20s, which positioned Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School on top, berated Stravinsky for becoming conservative, considered Gershwin a hopeless populist and accepted Janacek and Bartok with reluctance. Voila! That’s the last decade as perceived by Quandt and his colleagues.
These critics aren’t wrong, of course, but they may not be right. Many contemporary curators and critics have a dismissive attitude towards the seductive appeal of narrative just as the music intelligentsia looked askance at melody and harmony back in the Twenties. To a certain sector of each culture, true music and cinema can be divorced from what audiences most crave when attending concerts and screenings.
Film theorists have been battling plot and character since the ‘70s when academia arrived as a major force in the promoting and understanding of cinema. It’s a truism that contemporary Hollywood offends most Cinematheque curators worldwide; clearly, what’s produced for the masses is vulgar—that’s an “a priori.” What’s replaced plot, structure and character development for such tastemakers is mise en scene.
The point now isn’t to engage with characters. It’s what you see that’s important. The aesthetic approach of the director is paramount on this list, not the subjects or the tales. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who encourages Western journalists to call him “Joe,” is a Thai filmmaker embraced wholeheartedly by Quandt and his colleagues. Syndromes and a Century, the film voted the best of the decade in this “alternative view” is, in some ways, a dramatization of the lively relationship between Weerasethakul’s parents. But asides always take us away from the story, asking the viewer to look at a vast range of characters and situations that may or may not be a part of his family’s story.
The beauty in Weerasethakul’s film lies in its imagery and the rhythm of the editing. That’s true, too, for Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang’s film I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone. Both films were commissioned by opera director Peter Sellars for the New Crowned Hope Festival held in Vienna in 2006 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth.
Tsai’s film, like that of “Joe.” mirrors the avant-garde approach of Sellars. We’re placed in Kuala Lumpur, where a couple of characters spend time providing care for others who are quite ill. Other people come and go. Once again, everything is beautifully shot and one gets the sense that the world is in decay.
Mainland Chinese director, Jia Zhang-ke, is well represented in the “best of” revue with three films. Jia’s cinema tends to be more playful than that of Tsai Ming-liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The World, in particular, is a lovely film about young people working in a theme park near Beijing, which has made facsimiles of great landmarks from around the world. The cinematography is excellent but so is the overwhelming feeling of adventure and loss that runs through the young protagonists in the film.
The curators for this progamme are far ranging in their geographical reach. Iranian master Abbas Kiarostami, Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, Rumanian neo-realist Cristian Mungiu and French directors Jean-Luc Godard and Clair Denis are represented with excellent work. Canadian David Cronenberg, American Terence Malick and the brilliant Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar have “narrative” art films in the programme.
Let me key in on two marvelous films that were deemed worthy of inclusion by Mr. Quandt and his friends. Saraband, the last film by Swedish genius Ingmar Bergman fights against the piety of being old. This tough film examines the angry couple from Scenes of a Marriage —once again played by Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson—and dramatizes what kept them fascinated with each other and why they’ll always be apart. It goes further than that: Bergman was a moralist to the end and never spared feelings. This is cinema—or theater or opera—at its best: honest, brilliantly performed and challenging to an audience in a fundamental way.
Finally, my homage to the great progammers of the world, which certainly includes James Quandt. Agnes Varda’s Les glaneurs et la glaneuse is the finest documentary of the decade. It looks at gleaning through history and art, from Millet’s paintings of farmwomen gathering up crops to the present day, when collectors abound. Then, she turns the tables on the audience, showing how homeless people are today’s gleaners, going through society’s garbage to survive.
A true artist, Varda doesn’t spare herself. She, too, is a gleaner, stealing and selecting images of people in order to create her work.
Curators are gleaners, too. Mr. Quandt and his friends are presenting a fascinating “alternative view” of the films of the Noughties. Be prepared to see diverse, challenging cinema—but it’s worth the trip.