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As the coming-out party for the fall film season, the Toronto International Film Festival inevitably has its share of dazzling debuts and catastrophic face plants, but the balance was distinctly tilted toward the high end of the scale this year. The worst that can be said of the 10-day festival's jam-packed lineup is that it offered few surprises. Movies that came out of Cannes with high expectations stoked largely lived up to their advance billing, while hotly anticipated works from the likes of Todd Haynes and Guy Maddin were as difficult and delightful as one might have dreamed. Is it possible to be disappointed by greatness?
Held back from TIFF's front-loaded opening weekend, and further delayed by a projection snafu, Haynes' long-gestating Bob Dylan project is dazzling, dense and perhaps a trifle unsteady, although it will take further viewings to know for sure. Taking its title from a piece of Basement Tapes arcana, I'm Not There splits the erstwhile Robert Zimmerman into a half-dozen avatars, from Cate Blanchett's snarling musical terrorist to Richard Gere's incognito outlaw. Culling from reams and reams of bootleg Dylanology, including a prolonged nod to Eat the Document, Haynes claims Dylan as an authentically inauthentic American archetype, a pop artist split through the prism of media whose every guise is at once a lie and the truth. Referencing Fellini and Peckinpah (as well as Georg Büchner's Woyzeck, as per the end credits), Haynes excavates a network of concentric rabbit holes every bit as head-spinning as Inland Empire, and similarly galvanized by a thrilling female performance. Incarnating the gnomic, lacerating Dylan (or, rather, "Jude Quinn") of Dont Look Back and Newport, Blanchett passes note-perfect mimicry on her way to reincarnation, leaving her Oscar-winning Hepburn in the dust.
A similar, though less complicated, feat of biographical possession is achieved by Control's Sam Riley, whose uncanny resemblance to late Joy Division singer Ian Curtis was verified by Grant Gee's solid band doc (titled, natch, Joy Division). Anton Corbijn, who photographed the band in its short-lived prime, shoots the streets of Thatcherite Manchester in wide-screen black and white, a perfect analogue to the barren landscapes of Unknown Pleasures. Although a trifle heavy-handed with his music cues ("Love Will Tear Us Apart" follows a marital spat), Corbijn ably re-creates the desperate frenzy of the band's live shows, although nothing can match the intensity of the documentary's real-deal excerpts.
Although there's substantial overlap, the differences between the two movies are fascinating. Control, which credits the autobiography of Curtis' wife, Deborah, as its source, dwells at length on the excruciating breakup of their marriage, consummated when both were in their teens, and spends nearly half its length foreshadowing Curtis' suicide. Joy Division, by contrast, does not number Deborah Curtis among its on-camera subjects, although printed excerpts from the book are used in her place, and alludes only vaguely to the couple's fatal dissolution. Still, nothing in Control sums up the band's significance as one subject's remark that Joy Division turned punk's "fuck you" into the more poignant "I'm fucked."
Ostensibly the first documentary from silent-film fetishist Guy Maddin, My Winnipeg is anything but a straightforward portrait of his Manitoban hometown. Providing live narration for the film's premiere, Maddin mixed history, reenactment and outright fraud, leaving serious doubts as to which was which. The film conjures a "snowy, sleepwalking" city of dreams whose main waterways are paralleled by underground duplicates, serviced by overlapping grids of main roads and secret back lanes. One of the latter leads to Maddin's childhood home, which he rents out for the purpose of restaging pivotal childhood incidents. Casting Detour's Ann Savage as his imperious mother and stilted look-alikes as his three siblings, Maddin clutches at his past while dramatizing the absurdity of his endeavor.
Just as Maddin's delirious Brand Upon the Brain! served as thinly veiled autobiography, so many of My Winnipeg's most outlandish moments seem to be based in fact, like the 1942 celebration of "If Day," where dutiful Winnipeggers donned Nazi garb to help sell war bonds (a smashing success, at least in Maddin's account). Canadian to the bone, Maddin works himself into a fit of outrage over the demolition of the city's hockey arena, which he fictively repopulates with a team of geriatric ice-skating greats.
Werner Herzog has never been shy about turning the documentary form to his own ends, but Encounters at the End of the World strikes a perfect balance between Herzog's trademark preoccupations and its relatively straightforward subject matter. On a mission from the National Science Foundation (whom he calls "nice people, but too concerned with my personal safety"), Herzog sets course for the Antarctic, where he latches on to the "professional dreamers" who scour the terrain for signs of life. Unlike the malleable (or unavailable) subjects of Grizzly Man and The White Diamond, Encounters' scientists resist Herzog's attempts to inject drama into their studies. When one biologist finds three uncataloged species in a freshly collected sample, Herzog tendentiously asks, "Is this a great moment?" and is answered only with bemused silence. The back-and-forth between Herzog's fiery pronouncements and the scientists' gelid temperaments gives Encounters a wry tension that is well worth savoring. Herzog is scheduled to present a local screening on Oct. 23 as part of UPenn's Herzog colloquium.
The interplay between maker and subject is just what's missing from Brian De Palma's Redacted, a strained anti-Iraq War mock-doc based on a real-life incident in which U.S. soldiers raped a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and then murdered her and her family. The idea to stage the movie as a found-footage collage is an ingenious one, allowing De Palma to simulate everything from a Marine's video diary to a swollen French documentary (complete with lingering extreme close-ups and operatic score). But the movie's disparate styles don't yield different points of view. De Palma's soldiers are either guileless, ineffectual or homicidal (sometimes all three), and so poorly acted they come across as little more than stick puppets. The movie's failings are arguably more dramatic than political, but it amounts to the same thing; with no sense of the way a directionless conflict has turned otherwise upstanding young men and women into conscienceless killers, the movie inadvertently endorses the "bad apples" theory of military misbehavior. (In an interview, De Palma countered that the constant demand for fresh troops has forced the military to admit candidates who never would have passed a psych evaluation in the past, which is a fair point, albeit one that appears nowhere in the film.) De Palma apologists bent themselves double trying to find self-awareness in the movie's thudding script, but nothing in it matches, or merits, the power of its closing images, a horrific slide show of collateral damage meant to rectify the mass media's circumspection.
Re-creating a similar atrocity, Nick Broomfield's doc-style feature Battle for Haditha boasts far more credible acting (the cast includes several Iraq veterans) and a matter-of-fact presentation that leaves the audience room to think. Broomfield doesn't whitewash his central character, played by Philadelphia native Elliot Ruiz, who guns down five Iraqi civilians in cold blood after a man in his squad is killed by a roadside bomb. But he doesn't make him a monster, either. He's an apparently good man who commits an unspeakable wrong, leaving us to sort through the wreckage.
Screening only a few hours after De Palma's misfire, George Romero's Diary of the Dead seemed to one-up Redacted at every turn. Officially an appendix to, not an extension of, Romero's Dead quartet, the movie begins with the familiar scenario of zombie outbreak. What's new is the form: The story is told entirely through footage shot by a group of college students, who are in the midst of shooting their own horror movie when real horror takes over. As in Redacted, the device is a stretch, requiring endless justification of the camera's presence, but at least Romero seems to know how grating the explanation can be: He makes his behind-the-lens surrogate a whiny, disconnected film brat who would rather film life than live it. Diary lacks real scares, and the acting is lousy even for a director who's never made it his first priority, but the movie is full of intriguing ideas, chief among them that the proliferation of media obscures truth rather than revealing it. Here, the image is a virus, eating away at the world until all that's left is an ambulatory corpse.
In the words of Jude Quinn: Mama, can this really be the end? No room to discourse on the Coens' chilling No Country for Old Men, Marjane Satrapi's winsome, wise Persepolis, the buzz-making Juno and buzz-killing Margot at the Wedding? That's the problem with an embarrassment of riches. You can run out of breath just counting your blessings.