Toronto presents North America's mad mad mad world fall film fest option, while Vancouver gives post-Hollywood cinemaniacs a quieter, more contemplative choice. Thanks to Tony Rayns, who is marking his last year of programming the Vancouver International Film Festival's Dragons & Tigers section and competition, the fest has blazed trails: directors such as Hirokazu Kore-Eda and Jia Zhangke have won early and influential awards here. But there are other secrets about VIFF. One irony: it might be a better showcase of independent movies from the US than any actual US fest. Experimental features and documentaries that move beyond issue-based hectoring thrive here.
Not-so-fresh from a 4am wakeup and an uneventful flight, I saw my first VIFF movie before I'd even checked into my room. That movie was Linda Hattendorf's The Cats of Mirikitani, an award-winner at the most recent Tribeca fest. This is an American version -- thus bearing slightly unwelcome markers such as an emotionally-coded score -- of the kind of too-rare personal portraiture docs that the VIFF often uncovers, for instance last year's wholly unique and superior Estamira, a Grey Gardens for contemporary Brazil. Like the fiercely unsentimental Estamira, Cats of Mirikitani looks toward and learns from a homeless (at film's start) protagonist.
In the beginning of 2001, Jimmy Mirikitani is painting cats, and far less whimsical images of his time spent in a WWII internment camp. He's been doing so for years, outside in Soho. It's there that the filmmaker first spots him, hunched over in the extreme winter cold, plying his trade as a "grand master artist." Over time, she begins to interview Mirikitani, and learn more about the influence that past traumas, including the bombing of Hiroshima, have on his obsessive work and his life on the streets.
Then the World Trade Center attacks occur. Krippendorf, finding Mirikitani still outside in the toxic smoke, takes him in to her apartment. Through months of lightly sparring cohabitation and friendship -- at times the relationship between director and subject is discomfiting -- she learns more about his life (including time sent with Jackson Pollock), and his family (it turns out that SF poet Janice Mirikitani is a relative). The Cats of Mirikitani is both a critical essay about the history and meaning of American citizenship, and a portrait, up close and yet still very much from a distance, of an artist. An 82-year-old artist who is handsome and combative and still open to change. And who likes to paint cats.
still from Climates
In between feline-themes docs, I took in two fictive features yesterday. Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Climates might very well be the most beautiful shot-on-video movie I've ever seen. Anyone who caught Ceylan's Cannes award-winner Distant during a stint at the Roxie a few years back knows that Ceylan is an unparalleled photographer of people, nature, and cities -- sometimes all three simultaneously. Through his lens, the heat of the midday sun can make you sweat in a cold dark theater; he makes snowfall look like volcanic ash.
Like Distant, Ceylan's new movie looks at an emotionally stunted and at times cluelessly obsessive, um, photographer who has an impulse to stalk his lady loves (note the extra s). This time, the narrative travels beyond Istanbul, and it seems even more autobiographical, with Ceylan and his wife Ebru (who is excellent) taking the lead roles. The love triangle of Climates may be too familiar, and the idea of another esteemed male director making a movie in which he's a blind cad is more than enough to make many sensible folks wretch. But one ridiculous lovemaking sequence aside, at least Ceylan indulges this narcissism subtly -- the whole movie could be interpeted as a pained or barbed gift to the movie's "other woman," who says she loves breakup stories. I would rush out to buy a monograph devoted to Ceylan images, but no book could capture his command of camera movement -- there are short stories, sometimes with startling turns, told through the camera's shifts in perspective from a scene's beginning to end.
Volver: so, if Pedro Almodovar's movies are often all about his mother, is Carmen Maura his spiritual I-remember-mama? That's the role she plays in his latest movie, while Penelope Cruz -- probably thanking her lucky stars that she escaped being Tom Cruise's babymaker -- shows off a personality as curvy as her newfound rear. The Anna Magnani comparisons are too obvious, since the film itself makes them. More interesting is Almodovar's many variations on the titular theme. He's obsessed with past's return to a degree that can be dizzying. Male psychodrama brings out his sharp-toothed side -- witness the Vertigo by way of remaking his own Law of Desire fatal battles of his last movie, Bad Education. This time the men are rotten and quickly disposed of, or puppy-like cuties to be briefly glimpsed at most. Once again, Almodovar has cooked up a candy-colored and coated valentine to women's resilience and craftiness. Something as sweet as the churro- and donut-like "wafers" his lead ladies often munch on. (Nice use of a Saint Etienne song leading up to the by now ritual ballad sequence.)
Day one at VIFF began and ended with docs that brush up against the WTC attacks and fixate on urban art cats. Essayist Chris Marker's The Case of the Grinning Cat finds him in relatively straightforward, diary-like mode, albeit free-associative. In paying tribute to and investigating a Rotten Ralph-like image of a smiling kitty that appears on Paris's obscure corners and hard-to-reach rooftops (suggesting, as he puts it, both Charles Schulz and Spiderman), Marker addresses and views U.S. and French political leaders like the useless puppets they are, using video to eerily hollow out the eyes of George W. Bush and others. What is the solution to the case of the grinning cat? One non sequitur clue: Marker dedicates the film to George Sanders.
Day two brings more docs, including photographer Lauren Greenfield's look at an anorexia and bulimia patients and a treatment center, Thin.