Babylon (Damien Chazelle, 2022)

WHITE ELEPHANTS. Kenneth Anger chose to open his Hollywood Babylon with these two words; Manny Farber’s grandiose polemic endures; Damien Chazelle, we can assume, knows what he’s doing when he opens his own Babylon with the Sisyphean act of pulling one up a Santa Monica hill. (Later, he repeats the image, only with a crew of handlers relaying a nearly unconscious leading man to an epic summit.) For Anger, it’s an incantation preceding a conspiratorial monologue; for Farber, a symbol that allows him to riff on everything he disliked about Antonioni, Truffaut, and Tony Richardson; and for Chazelle it’s a way to show he’s done his research, to prove that he can assume, albeit in a rather anxious pose, the seat of authority required to make a capital-S statement film about the whole business of making massively public art.

The milieu is attention-grabbing: pre-code Hollywood, with enough creative license so that the historical record shadows, rather than defines, the plot. There are, roughly, five protagonists, all of them stars whether entering (Margot Robbie), exiting (Brad Pitt), merely admiring (Diego Calva), or grasping a brief after-hours aspect of the spotlight (Jovan Adepo, Li Jun Li). It would be possible to psychoanalyze these players, to trace them to the names, many of them lining Anger’s book, that influence their characterizations. It would also be possible to make a big deal out of the second-hand electricity Chazelle bottles from other films, most notably those by Paul Thomas Anderson. But what’s most striking about Babylon is its attempt to grapple with insignificance.

Chazelle’s prior successes have earned him the title of a virtuoso, someone within shouting distance of the achievements Pitt’s Jack Conrad might be referring to when he pontificates that musical form is the summation of all the arts. But in practice, Chazelle’s films tend to be limited rather than defined by their musical sequences, which work uphill to redeem the curiously leaden drama and deadpan theatrics of scenes so alien from one another they approach, on the larger canvas of Babylon, an anthology film. Yet, seams and all, the film is compulsively watchable. 

As in his previous film, the largely unsuccessful First Man, Babylon a work about the difference between reaching the top of a profession and finding nirvana. It is obsessed, not with history or sex, but art — the one role of any significance with a real-life name is Irving Thalberg, a figure whose imprint is visible on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon. Perhaps the whole movie hinges on a scene where Conway meets a hack writer-critic (Jean Smart) who might, on the one hand, be an industry rag career-maker, but for a moment takes on the movie-breaking transcendent role of something like The Matrix Reloaded’s Architect. The important thing to know, she says, is that the roles that both of them are playing are essentially archetypal, and are doomed, or destined, to recur in eternal fashion.

Taken one way, Chazelle’s boom-bust narrative resembles any criminal line-up of star cash-in biopics. But in the way he would have it, this fantasy, which reaches warp speed in an early sequence that takes place on a kind of Hollywood backlot-of-the-mind, and terminates in an Irma Vep-derived triumph over the aging of cinema, is one that equivocates, or bridges, the enchantments of golden-age industry and the cynicism that, as Bogdanovich said in Targets, all the good movies have already been made.

It’s a project that, for all its sharp elbows thrown at anticipated criticisms, is most apparently nervous at the thought of being thought too high-minded. Its vulgar sense of humour, concerned with nervous reactions (sweat, vomit, shit) and baseness as a form of truth-telling, finds its appropriate climax in a sequence that dovetails with the philosophy of Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels. Unlike what the poison pens of Alfred Hayes or Nathanael West wrote, the fatalistic quest here isn’t one out of Hollywood. No, the crystallizing moment is when one of our protagonists, instead of lurking by the exits to take a quick poll of audience ecstasy, sits with the masses and gets lost in his own reaction.

Yet Chazelle tries to twist his way into something even more resonant: collapsing the history of Los Angeles’s most lucrative successes into a minute, he presents something like a continuation of Gloria Swanson’s identification with the screen in Sunset Blvd. There, she is assured of her towering stature, no matter what plane of reality she’s on. Accordingly, what Chazelle offers as the pinnacle of moviemaking is images designed to make their witnesses feel pathetically small.

Jungle Cruise (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2021)

The impersonal, it’s been said, is essentially demoralizing. Of late, when referring to studio productions, this problem has morphed from an identifiable illness into a powerful malaise. Disney, the creature with five studio heads, is often identified as the source of much of this trouble. One way to deal with the trouble is to consider the corporation a gorgon like Medusa and avoid all eye contact. After all, because their franchises operate with TV-style templates (and so then, too, do their imitators’), an individual movie’s artistic failure is ultimately predictable. Plus it saves time. 

Jaume Collet-Serra’s direction of Disney’s Jungle Cruise is then a minor complication (or an interesting case-study). He’s the first auteurist cause célèbre to make a movie for the company since Sam Raimi back in 2013 (one that until recently appeared to be a career-ender). Some might neatly choose the perspective of the forest over the trees and call the careerist move a defection: a good director gets fired by these guys, a great one never gets considered for the job, and you know what that says about the ones who turn in the assignment on time. The only problem I have with this standard would be that it frees the work from examination: in this case, does everything Disney touches turn anonymous, and everything before remain the reliable work of a B-movie master?

Collet-Serra’s imprint is not hard to find in Jungle Cruise. A throwaway line of dialogue references the major reveal in Orphan. A flashback to the creation of a riverside town gets a time-lapse reminiscent of, though less moving than, the one that opens The Commuter. Horror stylization accompanies a meeting with the dead and a romantic scene’s banal dialogue is flashed into silence by the presence of a Super-8 camera. Old collaborators are still around, including editor Joel Negron and cinematographer Flavio Labiano, and an early sequence plays like a parody of the Royal Geographic Society scenes in The Lost City of Z, perhaps because the two films share a production designer in Jean-Vincent Puzos. Collet-Serra is not absent then, but he seems content to supply minor details and relinquishes major choices. His Liam Neeson collaborations are no Ranown cycle, but the way they operate is by tying their perspective to Neeson’s characters’ tortured instincts, and surrounding him with an extremely well-defined and confined world. (The same holds true for the protagonists played by Vera Farmiga and Blake Lively in the genre films made just before and after this collaboration.)

It’s an omen, then, that the director of Non-Stop and Run All Night is here along for a mere cruise. The amusement park ride is evidently the progeny of John Huston’s The African Queen, but whatever inconsistencies Huston allowed into his films, one could say that he would never err in making the boat the star focus. And this is Collet-Serra’s weakness: an inability to personalize the deficiencies of the material around him, a mistaken sense of where the talent lies in this film. The blockbuster scale isn’t an odd fit for him just because it scales up compromises of control, but because it requires him to centre his focus on rigid uplift. Collet-Serra is never more in his element than when he’s charting the concentration afforded by cruel traps, and consequently at his least convincing when he’s too eagerly providing an escape mechanism — as in the Spartacus moment at the end of The Commuter. Here, the premise of the movie is that everyone is, after minimal adjustment to a new setting, happy with their lot (even though the setting is Brazil during WWI).

This mismatch suggests an opening filled by other candidates for authorship of this movie. In one corner, the producers who want it to double as an Indiana Jones or Pirates of the Caribbean franchise-starter. In another, the many hands who push for interchangeable coverage options and demand that no fewer than one hundred thousand CG frogs, bees, snakes, and sea creatures must appear onscreen. And finally, and maybe most critically, there is Dwayne Johnson. Johnson, also a producer, is an intensely vapid screen presence, a quality other directors have done well to notice (Kelly in Southland Tales, Bay in Pain & Gain). Collet-Serra, instead, assumes Johnson and Emily Blunt (the hero figure of the film, though she’s denied much of a protagonist’s role), are up to the tasks of any other star. He can wear a costume evocative of Bogart’s and convey the passage of centuries; she can be Harrison Ford and Karen Allen. The film is constructed to hit the beats of its internal logic: it’s all of these reference points, and the deadly important errand-running of Star Wars too. Collet-Serra’s acceptance of this logic means he ends up looking like any other director.

VIFF 2019: A Short Film Survey

Usually, short film coverage for a festival is about recommendations: see this, it’s the only time it’ll play in a theatre, probably. (The only holdover from last year’s VIFF I’m aware of was Norm Li’s Under the Viaduct, which screened in front of Sébastien Pilote’s La disparition des lucioles at The Cinematheque way back in January.) But this comes too late for that. So, where does this all go? VIFF’s programming has come to Seattle before, and, I suppose, there’s always Vimeo, but this is the flipside to festival going: there’s this idea in film writing that a work is good if it does something “memorable,” but it’s very often the once-and-never-again live aspect of a film screening, or the act of searching and waiting and writing about a film that creates and allows us to retain our film-memories. A handful of these, I know for certain, will go online for viewing within the next year. For the rest, an uncertain fate to be, as Souvankham Thammavongsa puts it, stories “wide and lost and ever changing.” Before they change any further in memory then, a survey of what things looked like this year.

VIFF executive director Jacqueline Dupuis opening the festival’s centrepiece awards event (Credit: Stephen Morgan)

VIFF doesn’t do curation for its short films — it provides a roof. When the festival boasts of 300+ films each year, over 100 of those are shorts. It can look like equal footing then, except that there are disparities all over the place. I want to say that this was a good year for the shorts selection, as far as anything can be summarized about a selection so broad and unpredictable, but it’s more fair to say that anything qualitative has to do with the grouped filmmaking traditions that are represented each year. 

Like in the Canadian features landscape, short films from Quebec arrive with larger budgets, lengthier runtimes, and distribution deals already set up. In general, the longer films are the ones that garner awards and drive interest in their makers — one can see this kind of angling from the intense 20-minute familial disruptions of Chubby (from Ontario) or The Cut. The same goes for last year’s Academy Award-nominated Fauve. Perhaps the most interesting case in this year’s lineup is Theodore Ushev’s The Physics of Sorrow.

A still from Theodore Ushev's The Physics of Sorrow. A painted image, of a figure in a hallway.
The Physics of Sorrow (Theodore Ushev)

If Ushev’s film wasn’t narrated by Rossif Sutherland, its images would seem to lend itself to a polyphonic consciousness. “I have always been born,” its train and time-traversing opening declares, before tracing a mythology of existence, from before the dinosaurs to after the apocalypse. Without exaggeration, this comes across as a masterpiece of animation (and it seems to know it, too), a work of deep interiority and a reminder that while short films are often structured like twist-ending short stories, there are other traditions to pull from. 

In this case, Ushev, the only filmmaker with ties to Bulgaria to be nominated for an Academy Award, is drawing from one of the country’s foremost literary talents — the film is titled after Georgi Gospodinov’s novel, published earlier this decade. So there’s a lot of weight here, but Ushev tries to keep the pace of things light, in a modernist stream-of-consciousness kind of way. The NFB is marketing this as the first film entirely animated via encaustic painting (an impasto method involving beeswax) — one imagines, as the narrator strains to cover the experience of migration across eons (or minutes), the labour of the single animator, the cost of all that time, the dedication of building up a practice for a relatively obscure tradition, to the point of being able to reach toward the sublime. This isn’t really experimenting — Ushev is full-force applying himself, layering beauty upon beauty. Someone I know called it “undeniable.” Even as its memory monologue unspools, this is a film that charges forward, with no interest in looking back.

It isn’t a surprise that there’s a film like Ushev’s in the short film competition (it earned a runner-up Special Mention): there’s a Canadian entry in the Academy nominees every other year or so. If you’re looking for change, the main one this year had to do with VIFF’s first visible attempt to address its shorts programming’s lack of diversity. Amanda Strong, a Vancouver-based Michif filmmaker, was brought on as a programmer, and two programs of shorts from indigenous filmmakers were added to the usual five. This add-on approach is often, deservedly, criticized as a way for institutions to avoid real, lasting change; it keeps the films in question separate from the established programs. 

Without knowing what this first effort will lead to, for now it’s worth saying that the films that benefited from this expansion were consistent with what a lot of indigenous communities are trying to do in the broader art world. They’re carving out space, restoring the visibility of ceremonial practices, and passing on knowledge to the next generation. While this educational context means these films are rarely of interest to cinephiles, there was variety within the programs: a couple of the fiction highlights were Kelly Roulette’s Sometimes She Smiles, a haunted spirit story with a structure not dissimilar to a Méliès short, and Madeline Terbasket’s Q’sapi Times

A still from Madeline Terbasket's Q'sapi Times. A storyteller, arms in a gesturing pose, sits in front of a fireplace.
Q’sapi Times (Madeline Terbasket)

Film, with its institutional gatekeeping, high cost of entry, and need for technical training, tends to lag behind writing when it comes to who is telling the story. Terbasket’s film in particular seems to be accessing the sense of narrative play and wit characteristic of many indigenous writers who have gained prominence in the publishing world over the past two decades. This is a coyote story, with Terbasket playing two trickster roles and using every formal and theatrical disruption they can get their hands on. Terbasket, who has previously collaborated with David Diamond, isn’t above low-brow jokes and narrative impatience; like any good oral storyteller, they keep things close to their audience: not the targeted imaginary one of buyers and “movie-lovers,” but the real, physical one they’re connected to by the communities in which they’re known.

Still from Eliot Galán's When the Tide Goes out. Drone shot of tidal flats at the edge of a forest.
When the Tide Goes Out (Eliot Galán)

The closer one ties a festival to a community, the more it can bring up the question of what is meant by the filmmaking spotlights at major festivals, which tend to organize along national, rather than regional concerns. And, sure, that’s how the funding is split up. But when it comes to what is meant by local, the insistence of borders looks pretty arbitrary. As a speaker in When the Tide Goes Out puts it, “What society teaches us is to be disconnected.” Directed by Eliot Galán, this mid-length documentary shows a group from the Tsleil-Watuth nation re-enacting a clam harvest in Burrard Inlet, where pollution and municipal bylaws have made the actual practice impossible. “We’re up against over a century of industrial development,” says one interviewee — this isn’t a film of conflict, however; it’s about capturing the small increments of possible action in a community not far outside the doors of the theatre where the film would’ve screened. Taking place in the Salish Sea, Galán drew on records from around the whole region, including ones from Tacoma’s public library — it’s easy to imagine a similar portrait for Commencement Bay, or Elliott Bay, that would have just as much to dig into.

Still from Sandra Ignagni's Highway to Heaven. A room of religious devotees, arranged in even rows,  in prayer before a meal.
Highway to Heaven (Sandra Ignagni)

Sandra Ignagni’s Highway to Heaven doesn’t go investigative, but it’s notable among the entire class of shorts this year for a couple reasons. With the distinction between screens collapsing, filmmakers are, much like they did at the dawn of television, going for extremes in aspect ratio: you’re seeing more squares and snake-ready rectangles than usual. Ignagni’s film, an observational cross-section of Richmond’s No. 5 Road, is possibly the only short in the program that justifies its ‘scope framing (Andrew Coppin is the cinematographer). There’s a close dialogue between what Ignagni is doing here and Frederick Wiseman’s In Jackson Heights — with less access (all of the spots Ignagni visits have a religious affiliation) the focus has less to do with Wiseman’s insistence on public speech, more with images that put the lie to the idea of both the easy myths of cultural homogeneity and simple multiculturalism. In either case charting, without presumption, the sparks and complements of difference is still the aim. (And the name-director relations aren’t just theoretical: J.P. Sniadecki and Brett Story are credited as development mentors.)

That’s the thing about films, even the ones with incredibly small crews: the closer you zoom in, the more people there are; if it were possible to truly document every moment of a film’s production — the uncredited names, the undocumented set dynamics, the long hidden hours of editing and promotion and submission processes and travel after production wraps — you might never run out of material. This is true even of the handmade film, which made something of a comeback at VIFF this year. 

Still from Caroline So Jung Lee's At the Bottom of the Sea. A car, seen from head-on, drives down an alley, its headlights streaking across the frame in a vertical line.
At the Bottom of the Sea (Caroline So Jung Lee)

At the Bottom of the Sea, Caroline So Jung Lee’s abstract reckoning with the ripple effect of the Korean Women’s Movement social protests of 2018 (audio extracts from Gwanghwamun Square’s “Courage to Be Uncomfortable” gathering echo under the images), won the biggest short program prize of the festival. Its solarized film sections and bromide-streaked midnight photography came about from a close relation with Cineworks, the foremost film-maker collective in Vancouver. Other examples included Yen-Chao Lin’s The Spirit Keepers of Makuta’ay, Cameron Mackenzie and Suzanne Friesen’s Venusian, and Sheridan Tamayo-Henderson’s In Which Life Continues Without Time. It’s one year, and it’s a tiny fraction of the films here, but you wouldn’t be wrong for finding VIFF averse to the practice in recent history (these are the first I’ve seen in four years of covering the program) — it’s a small enough shift to be possibly unintentional, but if it were to stick, it’d be a welcome one. Of course, this hasn’t yet extended much to the digital side of things — I spoke to a critic who argued the two most significant Canadian shorts of the year weren’t anywhere to be found at the festival (Michael Snow’s Cityscape and Blake Williams’s 2008).

Family histories are never far from a young filmmaker’s reservoir of material — they’re often the ellipsis that demands explication, or the blind spot that dooms a sense of drama. “Dramatists,” Hilton Als writes, “it seems, are always cursed and blessed with a family member who is a hysteric, and who cannot not make drama.” The methods of the filmmaker often take a different tact: the camera tends to be more concerned with a generationally distant family member’s lack of presence, the mystery they leave behind, the filmable objects and relatives and, of course, the shadows and ghosts and ceremonies that cover up all that mystery. You can see this in the forced on-camera confessions of Carol Nguyen’s No Crying at the Dinner Table, and the forthright concision of Sophy Romvari’s Grandma’s House

A still from Aaron Zeghers's Memoirs. A woman's image is illuminated, as in a holograph, while streaks of light overlay the entire frame.
Memoirs (Aaron Zeghers)

But perhaps the single most moving and demystifying work of the lot was Aaron Zeghers’s Memoirs. It didn’t win an award (and neither did Zeghers’s Danny, a mid-length that screened elsewhere in the festival lineup, though it deserves some kind of recognition). But find me a work that more intelligently mixes together the aphorisms of elders, the footnotes of fiction, and brilliant, awe-inspiring special effects. Zeghers is pushing the oral history interview past its realistic limit, and finds something more artful and weightier on the other side. You can also tell he has a skill for listening, and for knowing when he has a good quote. “People who plot their lives are just horrible people,” says one voice, in a film that slips out of plot any chance it gets, voices washing over one another, formats switching from Super-8 to digital to 16mm. To offer an alternative, another quotes from Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, a truly great generational work of another kind, one that describes in a similar key how the stuff that accumulates into a life rapidly does so outside of intention, and is far harder to reckon with and more beautiful, in a hard-to-approach way, for it.

The world isn’t lacking for documentation — or documentaries, which increasingly organize around single figures; there’s a CELEBRITY: WHAT THEY’RE KNOWN FOR profile coming to a cinema near you, right now — nor is it lacking people who say they can sift through all those documents. What sticks out, in Memoirs, say, is a mix of liveliness and gentleness, a generosity of intelligence that has no interest in didacticism or overblown appraisement. Two more to single out in this vein: Jessica Johnson and Ryan Ermacora’s Labour/Leisure and Christopher Auchter’s Now Is the Time (full disclosure: Ermacora also works as a projectionist at the same theatre where I work). Johnson and Ermacora, having earned in the past year retrospectives and a sizable grant to shoot their first feature (titled Anyox, after the northern BC ghost town), are only growing in stature, career-wise. 

A still from Jessica Johnson and Ryan Ermacora's Labour/Leisure. Labourers on a cherry orchard carry large white ladders to a worksite, viewed from within a large warehouse door.
Labour/Leisure (Jessica Johnson, Ryan Ermacora)

Their latest, set in the Okanagan, is a portrait of workers, in the fields and processing facilities of Kelowna’s cherry orchards. The bookending shots, of precipitous divisions (a golf course, a mansion), make their political point clear, but what comes through most in their images is their directness: they establish a personal point of contact (the credits start their roll with, presumably, everyone they came to know over the shoot, a list of scores of names), then step back, and let the cycle tell its story. As the critic Jaclyn Bruneau has written of their work, “They don’t educate, but instead provide a reflexive space for information already possessed.” We already know BC’s agricultural industries are more unfair, complex, and fundamentally different from the version that rests on the edge of the usual message about buying local and “growing the province’s wealth.” So Johnson and Ermacora give us a brief but generative look that resembles none of our assumptions, and doesn’t make sport of our emotions. You could say that what their film really provides is a space to see a world where we meet people, rather than consume their stories.

A still from Christopher Auchter's Now Is the Time. Robert Davidson, as a young artist, works over his desk late at night, brushing an in-progress hand-size sculpture, the window open before him into the blue evening.
Now Is the Time (Christopher Auchter)

Auchter’s film, on the other hand, could be called inspirational. A re-framing of the early work of artist Robert Davidson, Auchter’s work responds to an earlier profile of Davidson (Eugene Boyko’s This Was the Time) in the manner of a lively, animated essay film. Not only does Auchter return to Davidson in the present to contextualize his work in the first person, he dislocates the quasi-propagandist tone (“This boy may be one of the last…”) of Boyko’s “well-intentioned” film. This is a rare encounter of two artists meeting as equals, each illuminating the others’ work, as in Claire Denis’s Vers Mathilde or Bruce Conner’s The White Rose. Auchter had the original footage restored, and so we see Davidson’s work returned to its contemporary prime: the autumnal reds and oranges and wallpaper as melodramatically brilliant as the communal environs of Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows

Out of this, Davidson emerges in quite a different way from the other profile of his work at this year’s VIFF — Charles Wilkinson’s Haida Modern. That film got all the press, but seeks mostly to explain and make easily understandable an artist’s completed works; Auchter creates a work of art in and of itself. Just as the totem pole Davidson makes (he says it was the first work of his on that large a scale) eventually called on the efforts of an entire community to see realized, Auchter collaborated with names seen elsewhere in this year’s shorts lineup: Asia Youngman (This Ink Runs Deep) is the director of photography, Alicia Eisen (Deady Freddy) contributed stop-motion animation. Wilkinson, operating from a settler perspective, can’t approach Davidson’s work as Auchter does: rather than an encapsulation, this is a true, overflowing encounter — he finds life in the past; he, in a warm, explosive, way, connects with it. Which is sometimes all that art needs to do to make a single encounter life-giving.

A still from Christopher Auchter's Now Is the Time. Robert Davidson, present-day, in his studio, full of wood and completed works.
Now Is the Time (Christopher Auchter)