Tag: Festival of Festivals

A Galloping Genesis

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Many beautiful things have screened over the years at the Toronto International Film Festival, and many of the works I’ve enjoyed most didn’t involve famous people or the related screaming-fan hype. Good storytelling still matters a lot in my world. This year, I made a conscious effort to attend the kind of fascinating movies that made me love TIFF in the first place.

I’d heard very good things about The Dark Horse from its premiere at the New Zealand International Film Festival back in July. The subject matter intrigued because it hit on my interest (if not talent) in chess. I grew up with a chess-mad friend and knew the names of many greats, including Kiwi champ Genesis Potini, the so-called “dark horse” of the New Zealand chess world. Now I don’t played chess myself, but I appreciate the elegance of the game and the depth of passion that comes with it, to say nothing of its many committed players. The Dark Horse, based on a 2005 documentary about Potini, chronicles his efforts in founding the Gisborne-based Eastern Knights chess club as he simultaneously attempts to deal with his mental illness and help his nephew escape a nightmarish home life.

Rather than The Dark Horse being a trite, cutesy melodrama about mental illness, it offers a refreshing, unflinching look at a complex man, his realities, and the community he inspired. The film opens with Genesis (played with magical intensity by Cliff Curtis) walking through a downpour, amidst busy traffic, a colorful quilt draped over his shoulders, speaking a mix of Maori and English, manically repeating words and phrases. In real life, Potini worked hard to make peace with his illness while working to give disadvantaged youth a sense of hope, despite incredible odds at both macro and micro levels. These mix of challenges are reflected in simple, effective ways throughout the film (the anxious pill-taking, the terrifying nosebleed, his sleeping rough in a rainstorm) though perhaps nowhere more strongly than in the scenes between Genesis (“Gen”) and his troubled brother, Ariki (Wayne Hapi, in a heartbreaking performance). His house is a party headquarters for thuggish fellow gang members, not a proper environment in which to raise his sensitive teenaged son, Mana (played with searing vulnerability by James Rolleston). When Ariki angrily shouts at Gen that “The world doesn’t want him!” (about Mana), we suspect he could be speaking about any number of the kids we’ve seen Gen work with. There’s an ugly if necessary subtext here, one that gives important pause.

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However, far from giving in to despair, we see how the kids are able to flower, with diligence, discipline, patience, and kindness. Gen cultivates a deep sense of pride in their culture while fostering a true sense of self-worth and innate purpose. The scenes of the kids picking various chess pieces that represent who they are, and relating that to Maori mythology, is positively lyrical, but done in the most simple and elegant of ways. There is no soaring orchestral score, there are no cutesy quirks from any of the kids. Playing chess is not mere strategy on the board but necessary methodology in life; are you a Queen, a King, a pawn, a rook? The Dark Horse asks us to consider these questions not only of ourselves, but about those whom we might not think twice about, those whom we might write off, point fingers at, ostracize, ignore. Is there possibility? Can we guide them to “the center” as Gen is always urging his students to do on the board? Is there a better way to checkmate? The game’s mix of methodical and precise, of individual and community, is nicely realized onscreen, with scenes that alternate between Gen’s gentle engagements with the community, his difficult dealings with family, and his passionate, frequently tormented solo endeavors.

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Director James Napier Robertson has done a masterful job in painting a mesmerizing portrait of a talented, troubled man who wanted to make a difference in the lives of those around him. He wisely lingers on faces and uses many long shots, silently observing the world of gangs, violence, and abuse without judgment or patronage. The audience is watching pure being unfold, whether it’s Genesis contemplating his next move (in life and/or on the board), a good friend expressing silent worry, a father letting go of the son he knows he can’t take care of, a teenager too scared to go home. Curtis is particularly moving in expressing the challenges Genesis faces in attempting to ride the waves of his mental state while processing the desperation around him. This is an Oscar-worthy performance, one that mixes pathos, anger, fear, pain, and a deep, extraordinary beauty. There’s something very soulful about the way Curtis uses his eyes, capturing with riveting stillness a touching vulnerability and intense knowingness, all at once.

Knowing the events and people in the movie are real imbues The Dark Horse with an automatic sense of humanity, but Robertson smartly avoids any kind of Hollywood-hokey tone. His smart, sensitive script, creative cinematography (with liberal use of documentary-style hand-held filming), and clearly trusting relationship with his actors touches at the heart of something beautiful but rare in film these days: grace. It’s a feeling I couldn’t help but experience as I looked out at the movie’s cast and crew Saturday afternoon. As was expressed, making a film is an act of faith, just as seeing one is; the glory and the genius of The Dark Horse is how much that faith is so beautifully expressed, and so authentically rewarded. We come away blessed, strategizing next moves, entirely in the presence of the divine. To quote the film’s tagline, bravery is contagious — but indeed, it turns out, so is grace. Burn down the school!

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Head & Heart & Movies & Me

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Movies were one of my first great loves. I would sit in the grand silence of many an old cinema, with scratchy red seats, the velvet sheen long since worn off, and spider webs wrapped like lace around the dusty, grey crystals of faded, wheezing-gold wall sconces, floors sticky with a thousand screaming-kiddie afternoons and breathless teenaged nights. It was magic. Star Wars, Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Rocky, Jaws, Clash of the Titans and Flash Gordon, and later, Thelma and Louise, Aliens, JFK, and Tim Burton’s Batman were a part of my culture diet, alongside nights at the opera and afternoons at the museum. Along the way, I developed a desire to direct movies, write movies, produce movies, be in movies. 

When I was old enough to attend the then-named Festival of Festivals (which later grew into the behemoth that is the Toronto International Film Festival), I purposely sought out the strange, the unusual, the odd — stuff that I might never see again. That’s what a film festival’s really for, isn’t it? The blockbusters could wait. Along with the big, ballsy blockbuster stuff, I had developed a love of smaller fare: the intimate wordplay of Woody Allen’s work, the poetry of Federico Fellini, the deliberate thoughtfulness of Ingmar Bergman. The work of Wim Wenders, whose visual poetry and keen integration of timing, color, sound, and performance feel quietly operatic, yet grandly passionate, fired my imagination with tales that deviated from the orderly narratives I’d seen in so many Hollywood movies. The smaller works introduced me to new ways of looking at old myths, and the courage to dream up new ones. 

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Even as I wrote, I continued to watch, waiting in interminable lines (and frequently terrible weather) to be let in to the dusty, dark palace of my dreams. I clearly remember the many magical elements of De vliegende Hollander (The Flying Dutchman, seen at the film festival): long silences punctuated only by breath and wind, brown-and-gold tinged cinematography, the mud around an actor’s face. Terence Mallick’s The Thin Red Line utterly awed, silenced, stunned, into a very intense head and heart-space. Walking home later, the rain drops that sat, jewel-like, on the grey, lined cobblestone streets of Dublin looked different, filled with a magic I knew nothing of, but could only marvel at.
This wonder extended itself to all types of movies, provoking equally powerful reactions and throwing open doors of creativity and dreaming, inspiring stories and screenplays that meshed the human, the historic, the fantastical, and the frightening. Going to the movie was a ritual, usually exercised opening night; there was something about the occasion that seemed exciting, and important to be a part of culturally. Sure, the actors were hot/interesting/cool, but what friends and I really wound up talking about over drinks in a smoky bar later was the way things were filmed, the way they sounded, the shadows, the light, the performances – the way everything came together and made us feel. And that’s ultimately what it was about: feeling. Big or small, indie or studio, if we felt something, if we were moved, if we came out of there and found everything looked different, the source hardly mattered. Being moved and being entertained were not mutually exclusive experiences. Back in the 1980s and 90s, I happily hopped between the small, medium, large, and super-gulp worlds of movies with ease, untroubled by questions around budgets, marketing, demographics, brand, or even hype. I simply went because I loved movies, and I loved the experience of going to see them.

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I don’t know when the divide came, or how. It’s strange that so many of the filmmakers I admire aren’t around anymore (“dead” doesn’t necessarily translate literally in Hollywood), that so many of the actors whose worked I followed are either now a part of blockbuster franchises or relegated into old fart-style roles, that films like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Grand Budapest Hotel, or Only Lovers Left Alive should be anomalies. And yet, in the landscape of contemporary movies, they are, and they’re treated more as lovable/weirdo/cool/hipster-y outsiders than full, firm, equal – and necessary – parts of the film industry. The sharp rise of delineations between blockbuster and indie rile, depress, infuriate, but hardly surprise; it feels as if hype is somehow more important than heart – real heart, not the cliched, easily-digestible kind manufactured by the bucketful and ladled out by studios keen on a quick ROI. Why should head and heart be so separate? Small sparks might provide temporary heat and light in the film world now, but nothing like the roaring fire I once felt. 

Style plays as much of a role as content here. I greatly miss the grand experience of movie-going in an old cinema. The contemporary glass-and-metal popcorn palaces just don’t cut it; movie-going is a seduction, what with the raising of a curtain, the teasing of trailers, the shared silence, the delicious anticipation, the film itself a penetrating, all-encompassing, extended main course, with little side plates of things to dip in and out of for fun or rumination (or both). Multiplexes are, to my mind, the opposite of sexy; attending one is akin to going to a peep show featuring a plastic performer. I don’t feel seduced, I don’t feel beguiled, I don’t want more. Everything’s too loud and everything’s very ugly. Watching movies on a laptop is strange and uncomfortable, ease and convenience replacing the slow brew and simmer of a movie-going experience that feels long ago and far away. 
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Getting the movies out of one’s blood completely is, however, an impossible task. Very often find myself thinking in cinematic terms, directing scenes in my head, framing visuals I see or imagine, coming across various faces and casting them in the many unpublished narratives that sit, Leviathan-like, on my hard drive. My faith is partially restored by digital culture too, and by my work as an arts journalist; interviewing various filmmakers whose work I admire, connecting with other film lovers on social media, and the ease with which digital culture now allows one to access movies new and old, has lead to a kind of cinematic renaissance of sorts. I’m looking at old works with new eyes, and new works with far more critical readings and realizations, armed as I am with a knowledge of an industry in flux and the tyranny of what is perhaps best termed “kinder-mind.” 
When I like something, it’s good to be able to proclaim that love loudly, with a modicum of possible influence (maybe?) and to find a community with which to share that love; expressing dislike (and cynicism) is a much harder task, especially when something (or someone) is extremely popular, and it’s something I grapple with. I hope I’m getting better, and I hope there are more movies on the horizon to inspire, entertain, move, and beguile – and more places to be seduced in. There’s still few things better than having your breath taken away in the darkness.

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