Bongmania and Perverse Penance: Vancouver International Film Festival, Days 3 & 4

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The weekend is a time for perversion and penance, so what better way to begin mine at the Vancouver International Film Festival than with The Pervert's Guide to Cinema, a Slavoj Zizek-guided psychoanalytic tour through the works of Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, and others? And what could be a more monastic way to end the weekend than with the devotional cinema of Jacques Rivette's 12-plus hour long Out 1: Noli me tangere? In between, I caught Shortbus and witnessed the full frenzy of a Beatlemania-like response to Bong Joon-ho and his totally awesome monster flick The Host.

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Anyone who has studied film knows that the Bay Area is one haven -- perhaps the major North American one -- for psychoanalytic writings and readings: the home base for some books that have reshaped notions about melodrama and other genres and aspects (such as sound) of the movies. Some admirers of the most tortured language and logic imaginable might be prone to dismiss Zizek as a purveyor of Lacan for Dummies whose theories are facile in comparison to Lacanian film specialists. Well, Pervert's Guide (Zizek has referred to the title as a McGuffin) probably won't change that, with the author and personality wielding Freudian and post-Freudian heterosex if not heterodox interpretations of work primarily by directors -- most notably, Hitchcock -- whose work is already notorious for soaking in Freudian symbolism, so to speak.

In other words, Sophie Fiennes's three-part doc is a great pleasure, but its canonical insights aren't radical by any means. Zizek rides the boat to Bodega Bay with Melanie Daniels, takes peeks into Dorothy's Blue Velvet bedroom, and is captured, through natural or digital reenactment, inhabiting many of the same cinematic spaces he comments upon. Pervert's Guide follows the doc-as-film-lecture form of Thom Andersen's Los Angeles Plays Itself, and while Zizek's thesis isn't as creative as Andersen's, the visuals here (with sanctioned use of source material) and presentation are far superior.

I can't help but wish Zizek drew from a larger pool of references -- early on, he uses a fantastic scene of Joan Crawford watching a train go by in Clarence Brown's 1930 film Possessed as a corollary for the moviewatching experience, but most of the movies and clips surveyed are more modern and familiar. He does offer great interpretations of Chaplin's The Great Dictator, and of the Marx Brothers as classic reps of Id, Ego, and Superego. He's far from the first person to explore the meaning of Norman Bates' bathroom habits, but he might be the first to connect Psycho's bloody toilet with the one in Coppola's Conversation to infer that the movie screen is essentially what we watch to see shit. (More about shit at the VIFF soon.)

Speaking of which, Bong Joon-ho's The Host isn't just the best monster movie in years, it's also an even better monster-in-the-sewers movie than John Sayles' Alligator and Guillermo del Toro's Mimic (both of which are similarly pitiless towards children). One of the elements that elevates this movie to greatness is Bong's terrific handling of character and comedy. He's like a non-corny E.T.- and Poltergeist-era Spielberg. The Host is about a giant murderous tadpole of sorts spawned when the US government dumps formaldehyde in the Han River. But it's also about another monster of sorts -- a family that's essentially a five-headed creature prone to great clumsiness and heroism. (I especially like the reliably terrific Bong regular Park Hae-il, who is looking a little thicker these days.)

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When Bong's previous film Memories of Murder made festival rounds I commented that he'd made a better suspense movie than anything Hollywood had produced in more than a decade. This time, it's the Hollywood summer blockbuster that can kiss The Host's ass. The U.S. might be slow to catch onto the fact that Bong is making better genre movies than anyone with an LA area zip code, but The Host will speed the learning curve. The film's Saturday matinee screening here proved people in Vancouver have had a clue for a long time. Introduced by VIFF's Tony Rayns, who has programmed Bong's films dating back to his earliest student work, the director drew loud celeb worship oohs and ahhs simply by appearing and walking to the front of the theater. After the movie (and a long, adoring Q&A session), he tried to escape into anonymity, but wound up being trailed and cornered Beatlemania style -- Bongmania! -- by young fans (and more than one adult woman) on a nearby streetcorner.

Another loud crowd was similarly excited to see John Cameron Mitchell's Shortbus. This viewer was never turned on by the movie's comedic and too frantic cross-cutting representations of graphic sex (very Plato's Retreat via Penthouse pictorial), or its Sundance-meets-Benetton humanism (one principal aside, non-whites appear only as crowd fodder for the all-together-now ending). At least Justin Bond is great to see, even boxed in a Joel Grey role. I'm definitely on the minority side in thinking so, but this movie fails to chart new or intriguing territory in the space between drama and porn -- a division Pervert's Guide describes well, in terms that expose Shortbus's shortcomings.

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It's hard not to contrast the packaged and schematic bohemia of Shortbus with the freely sprawling early '70s Paris of Rivette's Out 1, which received its first North American screening in full with subtitles. For one thing, the first segment of Rivette's opus is largely devoted to group improv exercises that are, well, orgiastic. If the sections that followed remained solely within this Living Theater-on-its-way-to-Werner Erhard space, there is no way I would have stuck out the endurance test. The marathon nature of it all, with the same group of people returning to their seats after brief breaks, would have been just too EST-like. But Rivette adeptly explores the Me generation mind holes that then-contemporary Parisians were falling into only a few years after the May revolts. And he does so without falling himself.

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He succeeds by using Balzac and the Prometheus myth as a structural base, and the antic musings of a faux-mute Jean-Pierre Leaud (never more fetchingly feminine) as one of his bookmarks or framing devices. Early in episode two, Eric Rohmer arrives to give Leaud a harsh and dismissive lecture, only to wonder about Leaud's motives in a manner that suggests he wishes he was young again. In general, Out 1's women -- even a Anna Karina-circa-Vivre sa vie type who dupes a bunch of dopes -- are generally more nuanced and compelling than the men. Jonathan Rosenbaum's introductory discussion of the film was both relaxed and pointedly informative. When he referred to his previous writing about Out 1 in Placing Movies, it reminded me of first encountering and reviewing a reissue of that book (and Moving Places as well) back in...please don't say it was 1989, the last time Out 1 had a mini-revival. Where does the time go? Onto the movie screen, apparently.

Next up in the VIFF journal: Coney Island, two views of Paris (one of the city and one of the amazing and obscure singer named Jackie), Jia Zhangke's Still Life, and Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth. And a little later on, four entries in the Mozart "New Crowned Hope" series, including what just might be Apichatpong Weerasethakul's best movie to date.

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