The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: A visionary look at commercial fishing, an experimental homage to novelist W.G. Sebald, and a Canadian film festival.
Directed by Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
It’s no accident that Leviathan, easily the scariest movie about fish since Jaws, sets up shop in the same waters where Ahab famously started his hunt for Moby Dick. Yet where Herman Melville’s novel derives much of its sublime horror from the ghostly white whale, rarely seen but seemingly everywhere at once, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s radical documentary turns to the less specific threat of the sea itself, embedding itself in the monstrous, ever-churning systems involved in deep-sea fishing.
Castaing-Taylor and Paravel are colleagues at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab, and Leviathan is the fruit of their labour, a visceral dissection of the lives of both the fishermen and the catch. Documentaries about procedure tend to take a long view, but this is as close to cubism as the genre gets. The directors pin dozens of lightweight cameras to different parts of the boat, including the fishermen’s bodies. Sometimes, the tiny cams are even left to slosh indiscriminately beneath the nets of a fresh catch, sliding up against the bulging eyes of the dead. That eccentric approach yields some of the most demented and striking nature footage you’ll see in this lifetime, including a pair of gorgeous and terrifying night raids by ravenous seagulls, glimpsed from the point of view of their dinner.
Some will no doubt gripe that Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s method cedes authorial intention to the sea, effectively putting the film in the hands of a surging, blood-stained tide. But that’s precisely the point: Leviathan is ultimately a kind of ghost story told from the perspective of the natural world that we’ve chopped and gutted to our specifications. Without uttering a single word, it reminds us that the sea has plenty of muscle, ready to be flexed whenever we get too big for our britches.
Patience (After Sebald)
Directed by Grant Gee
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Midway through Patience (After Sebald), Grant Gee’s experimental documentary homage to W.G. Sebald’s novel The Rings of Saturn, a critic points out that for the author, meandering without intention was a moral imperative: it was the only real way for him to begin processing the catastrophic losses that marked his historical moment. Both a portrait of the author and a light exegesis of his novel—pitched “after” Sebald quite literally, given his sudden death in a 2001 car accident—Gee’s film is likewise an illuminating stroll in no particular direction, as well as a playful meditation on the pleasures of mapping alien territory as one ambles through it.
Published in 1995, Sebald’s novel describes a walking tour through Suffolk, which becomes an erudite and moving reflection on history and memory—not to mention, a bit more unexpectedly, a treatise on silkworm cultivation. Gee retraces Sebald’s steps through black-and-white 16mm photography of the countryside, and also through a range of hushed talking-head interviews from scholars and enthusiasts like novelist Rick Moody.
With his background in music videos and feauture-length documentaries on prickly subjects—Meeting People Is Easy captured Thom Yorke on the last leg of Radiohead’s OK Computer tour—Gee is well-suited to this imagistic approach to a difficult text. He never stoops to heavy-handed psychological explanations for Sebald’s delicate sadness or European temperament, and he shies away from plot summary as much as he can. That might make the film near impenetrable for those coming at Sebald’s work for the first time, but even novices should respond to the deep melancholy strain running through this psychogeographic walking tour
Patience (After Sebald) screens as part of TIFF Cinematheque’s Free Screen programme.
Canadian Film Fest 2013
The Royal (608 College Street)
Following a three-year hiatus between 2008 and 2011, the Canadian Film Fest this week returns to The Royal for its seventh installment. As its name suggests, the CFF serves as a spotlight for Canuck-crafted cinema, and this year’s edition boasts a lineup of six features and 18 shorts from a selection of promising homegrown filmmakers.
Wednesday night’s curtain-raiser is Rouge Sang (The Storm Within), the debut feature from Martin Doepner, who cut his teeth as an assistant director on projects as varied as 300, The Fountain, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Given the diversity of Doepner’s previous work, it’s perhaps unsurprising that his first self-helmed effort is something of a mashup, combining elements of historical drama with paranoid thrills and claustrophobic, cabin-in-the-woods horror. And while his story—of a habitante settler (Isabelle Guérard) compelled to shelter a squad of menacing Redcoats—suffers from some curious casting and similarly questionable plotting, Doepner deserves credit for the sheer chutzpah of his Heritage-Minute-meets-Midnight-Madness conceit.
More successful is Friday evening’s feature, The Disappeared, from award-winning author-turned-filmmaker Shandi Mitchell. An account of six men adrift in the North Atlantic and their increasingly desperate struggle against exhaustion and the elements, her spare, intimate narrative is a welcome humanist counterpoint to the laboured spiritualism of fellow high-seas survival flick Life of Pi. And while it lacks the CGI pyrotechnics of Ang Lee’s visual-effects Oscar winner, The Disappeared amply compensates with compelling performances from a cast of talented character actors, including east-coast natives Brian Downey and Shawn Doyle. It also benefits from Christopher Porter’s immersive cinematography, captured entirely on location on the open ocean.
Other notable programming initiatives at this year’s CFF include a series of workshops and discussion panels, open to industry pros and the public alike. Sessions are scheduled throughout the festival, but the highlights will be Wednesday’s masterclass with Toronto-based director Warren Sonoda, and Thursday afternoon’s roundtable addressing the state of the Canadian film industry, moderated by film critic Richard Crouse, and featuring local filmmaker Ed Gass-Donnelly (The Last Exorcism Part II, Small Town Murder Songs), as well as TIFF Canadian programmer Steve Gravestock.