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Rep Cinema This Week: Exit Elena and Soft in the Head, The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology, Kill Your Darlings

The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.

Still from Exit Elena.

At rep cinemas this week: A free double bill of emerging filmmaker Nathan Silver, Žižek’s perverse guide to ideology, and a weak fan fiction biography of Allen Ginsberg.

Exit Elena and Soft in the Head
Directed by Nathan Silver

Double Double Land (209 Augusta Avenue)
Wednesday, December 18, 7 p.m.

New York filmmaker Nathan Silver had a big year. While touring his micro-budgeted Exit Elena around various festivals, he was also finishing his immediate followup Soft in the Head, a kind of surly photo negative of the earlier film’s sweet and strange story of a young live-in nurse adopted into an off-kilter family, this time fronted by a malcontent who burns everything in her path. (A third consecutive film, Simian, is currently in production.) Silver’s double bill makes its Toronto debut as the centrepiece of the newest installment of local production company MDFF’s free screening series, along with a pair of critically lauded shorts by independent filmmakers Dustin Guy Defa and Eva Michon.

Though it’s clearly indebted to John Cassavetes’s personal, improvisational style (with shades of Canada’s prime documentarian Allan King), Exit Elena feels fully-formed in its own right, an anarchic comedy of manners about a stranger joining a family that has its own unique rhythms that are difficult to sync up with. The cast is strictly nonprofessional, from Silver’s then-girlfriend Kia Davis as Elena, to Silver himself as the family’s twitchy prodigal son Nathan. They’re all excellent, but in some ways the film rests the most on the equally hysterical and vulnerable performance of Silver’s mother Cindy as Elena’s boss, a woman who’s ostensibly hiring a nurse to look after her frail mother-in-law, but really looking for something between a daughter, a romantic match for her son, and a science experiment.

A far more caustic film, Soft in the Head follows a less compromising protagonist, Natalia (Sheila Etxeberría), a young woman we meet in the middle of a toxic exchange with her abusive boyfriend, who unceremoniously throws her out of their New York apartment before the opening credits. While Elena tentatively negotiates the limits of her professional and personal relationship with her adoptive family, Natalia seems contented only when she’s pushed people to their extremes, whether at her friend’s Shabbat dinner, which she effectively dive-bombs, or at the homeless shelter run by the sweet Maury (Ed Ryan). Soft in the Head feels a bit less organic than Exit Elena—the product of an almost ethnographic impulse to see what happens when a foreign element is introduced into two very different cultures, but it’s no less impressive for its honesty and verve.

Silver will be in attendance for Wednesday’s screening, and will give a Q&A moderated by Village Voice critic Calum Marsh.

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology
Directed by Sophie Fiennes
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TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology begins on a sublime note, with critical theorist turned pop icon Slavoj Žižek standing in front of a trashcan, integrated (rather like Forrest Gump) into footage from John Carpenter’s under-appreciated They Live. “The name of this trashcan,” he muses, “is ideology”—before adding that it is this trashcan out of which all of us eat. That cryptic insight is par for the course in Sophie Fiennes’s lively, if a bit uneven, followup to 2006’s The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema, which similarly placed Žižek in a host of film footage and let him riff.

The law of diminishing returns unfortunately mars the sequel, which doesn’t have the same thematic focus as its predecessor, in which Žižek effectively offered a masterclass on psychoanalysis in film. Perhaps because ideology is a more amorphous subject than, say, fantasy or desire, Žižek’s rambles feel a bit more diffuse this time. Žižek apologists will no doubt observe that intellectual diffuseness is his mode—the shift from West Side Story’s “Officer Krupke” number to a fairly surface reading of the London riots is Žižek’s method of juxtaposition on autopilot—but that doesn’t excuse the protracted running time, which causes even the more engaging readings, like his funny and astute tour through John Frankenheimer’s loony Seconds, to run out of steam. Still, Žižek fans will find much to admire here, and some of Fiennes’s images, including a tableau of the Slovenian philosopher in the middle of the desert, downing a warm Coca Cola that he deems “excremental,” are more than inspired.

Kill Your Darlings
Directed by John Krokidas
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The Royal (608 College Street)

What if a young Allen Ginsberg had a schoolboy crush on a rebellious young man soon to be locked up for murder? That’s the lurid premise behind Kill Your Darlings, a tedious bit of historical fan fiction designed to bring the beat poets back to life for people who like the idea of YA novels but are too lazy to read them.

As in the Harry Potter films, Daniel Radcliffe makes a passable straight-man lead, just bland enough for more interesting character actors like rising star Dane DeHaan (as Lucien Carr, honorary beat and Ginsberg’s would-be lover) and Ben Foster (as an unsmiling William S. Burroughs) to bounce off of. The downside is that he could be playing anyone: there’s little sense here of the manic, generational insight of the poet who wrote Howl. The best first-time feature director John Krokidas can do to show a restless creative mind at work is rewind his footage when his leads are in a drug haze. It’s a pity he couldn’t rewind the film all the way back to the script stage.