Nothin’s Jumpin’

I sat through one entire film — John Waters and Jeff Garlin‘s This Filthy World, a concert performance doc about Waters doing his act — and portions of three other films during my first six hours of the Toronto Film Festival, and none of them delivered much of a bolt or a jolt.
So things are off to an inauspicious start, but at least there’s that hot German film, The Lives of Others, that everyone was raving about at the close of last weekend’s Telluride Film Festival, showing at 9 pm this evening at the Elgin.
The three so-sos that I saw after the Waters-Garlin doc were Murali K. Thalluri‘s 2:37, Susanne Bier‘s After The Wedding and Rachid Bouchareb‘s Indigenes (i.e., Days of Glory)
For years the rap on Waters has been that he’s much better commentator-comedian than filmmaker. He’s a brilliant idea-and-insight man, but his movies, despite their irreverence and nerve, always feel a bit drab and one-dimensional. The big payoff of This Filthy World is that it’s nothing but Waters the gabbermouth, and that, for me, makes it funnier than A Dirty Shame or Serial Mom or Hairspray or even Pink Flamingoes.
TIFF programmer Noah Cowan‘s production notes are a hoot. “While This Filthy World might be described as an autobiographical stand-up comedy set by John Waters,” he begins, “its real purpose is to document a sardonic lesson in cinema’s decline and fall .” This falls under the heading of pretentious b.s. Well, not entirely, but what person writing or talking about film in any capacity isn’t discussing, in one way or the other, the cinema’s decline and fall, or at least the fact that 85% of the output sucks?
Water is just riffing here like I’ve seen him riff 17 or 18 times — amusingly, wittily — and he’s great at this. But let’s not try and pass him off as the new Voltaire.
Garlin (I Want Someone To Eat Cheese With) pretty much just shoots Waters from a centered mid-audience p.o.v. and that’s that. He keeps the camera in focus and doesn’t get too tricky and barely cuts between Waters and the audience too much. Cowan calls it “an uncluttered approach” — this guy’s a card.
2:37 is a kind of guessing-game movie about a suicide that happens in an Adelaide high school at 2:37 pm. Thalluri, who’s only 21 or thereabouts but directs like a much older pro, acquaints us with five or six (seven?) characters who may turn out to be the kid who’s killed himself. We’re supposed to care about this. I didn’t.
Every high-school kid suffers. A lot of them cope with profound depression of one kind of another — I sure did — but the ones who seriously entertain thoughts of suicide need to get over themselves and that’s that. I never even flirted with the idea, and nobody was sadder, angrier or felt more unloved and repressed and furious at everything than I was at age 15 or 16.
Life can be cold and brutal in high school, yes, but the idea of teenagers suffering profound soul-crushing angst is an overindulged mythology. Kids need to grim up and cut back on the substances and deal with it like Steve McQueen would have.
The influence you can’t ignore throughout 2:37 is Gus Van Sant‘s Elephant, which was also about a sudden tragedy in a high school with various characters either affected by it or contributing to it in some way. I much prefer the constant steadicam tracking and overall stylistic detachment of Van Sant’s film to Thalluri’s. I left 2:37 after a half-hour or so. An Australian exhibitor agreed with me later on that it’s very derivative and that my instinct to bail was entirely correct.
The emotional exposures and raw, dogma-ish acting and shooting styles and in Open Hearts and Brothers made me a huge fan of Bier. But I started to feel distanced from After the Wedding within a half-hour or so, and I bolted after about 45 or 50 minutes. It seemed to me that Anders Thomas Jensen‘s story — about some big primal changes happening to a wealthy Danish family — was forced and labored. It’s very well acted but too much of it feels contrived and histrionic.
The three principal performers — Mads Mikkelsen (who starred in Open Hearts), Sidse Babett Knudsen and Rolf Lassgard — are in excellent form throughout. I need to confess that there’s something about the haunted intensity in Mikkelsen’s high-cheekboned face that’s starting to bother me. Not a fair thing to lay on an actor’s natural mechanism, but there it is.
I guess I just felt that the main story points — it’s about a guy who runs an Indian orphanage finding out that he’s the father of a grown Danish daughter just as her stepfather, a bilionaire, is coping with a fatal disease and needs someone to step and take over, so to speak — were clumsily introduced and over-emphasized. Like Bier was so into achieving emotional fireworks that she allowed her zeal to get the best of her.
Indigenes, a World War II story about four North African guys who enlist in the French army but wind up dealing with a good amoutn of racial discrimination, is well-made and handomsely shot with some ultra-realistic battle scenes. But it’a rote and unexceptional piece, and is not that much different, believe it ot not, from Mark Robson‘s Home of the Brave, a 1949 film which dealt with racial discrimin- ation among U.S. troops during the same war.
It’s not a “bad” film — you get to know the characters, it moves along, it’s saying the right things about who we are and the necessity for dignity in every human life — but it feels too been-there, done-that.