The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: a look at the ex-New York Times reporter/serial plagiarizer Jayson Blair, a documentary on the origins of Jewish comedy, and the young romance that took top honours at Cannes.
A Fragile Trust
Directed by Samantha Grant
Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (506 Bloor Street West)
When he was caught for plagiarizing his latest short film, Howard Cantour.com, from a Daniel Clowes comic, Shia LaBeouf’s response ran the gamut from earnest contrition to postmodern non-apology and extended rants about how nothing is really original and everything is stolen. Stunning as it is, if only for the complexity of his delusions, LaBeouf’s reaction has nothing on Jayson Blair’s when he was busted for having fabricated or pilfered much of his reporting for the New York Times. Samantha Grant’s A Fragile Trust is a fascinating look at the fallout from that discovery, not only for Blair’s career as a journalist but also for the Times, long seen as the most trustworthy source of, if not the last bastion of, honest news.
Though it provides a sobering account of the procedural work the Times undertook to investigate one of its young stars and publicly damn itself for producing shoddy piece after shoddy piece, the film is most alive when the ball is in Blair’s court. A whip-smart serial liar with a history of mental illness and substance abuse issues, Blair is a great subject, whose true feelings about his misdeeds are impossible to pin down, especially in light of his post-Times career as an untrustworthy autobiographer. His account of the steps he took to falsify datelines, invent interviews, and convince his editors that he was covering stories in cities he never visited is staggering, and there’s something to be said for the fact that Grant allows us to be seduced by the sophistication of his con without damning him outright. Though Blair was rarely doing his actual job, the film suggests, he was always hard at work at his anxious shadow career as a professional liar.
Formally, Grant’s work is fairly standard, hewing closely to the tradition of Errol Morris exposés about corruption in high places. Perhaps taking its cue from Blair, the score pilfers from Danny Elfman’s playful collaborations with Morris, while the juxtapositions of Blair’s onscreen interview with b-roll of spiders spinning webs and cream swirling into coffee cups is straight out of The Thin Blue Line. Still, this is an absorbing depiction of how one trickster reporter’s actions caused a high-minded organization to look at itself in the mirror and notice all the blotches and wrinkles it didn’t wish to see.
A Fragile Trust is this month’s Doc Soup selection. Grant will be present for post-screening discussions.
When Jews Were Funny
Directed by Alan Zweig
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
A number of people were surprised when the powers-that-be at TIFF announced Alan Zweig as the winner of 2013’s Best Canadian Film prize for When Jews Were Funny, his characteristically unfussy, chatty examination of the Jewish roots of American humour. Zweig has always occupied an odd place in the Canadian film scene, respected for his consistent output and distinctive voice and yet underestimated by virtue of his modest, confessional aesthetic. When Jews Were Funny is not exactly a technical leap over earlier films like I, Curmudgeon and last year’s 15 Reasons to Live, but it might be the best synthesis of Zweig’s frank interview style and his penchant for marrying his personal interests to broader cultural issues.
Zweig sits down with a range of older Jewish comics—among them, Shelly Berman, Shecky Greene, and Super Dave Osborne himself, Bob Einstein—and younger blood like Eugene Mirman, hoping to get to the bottom of a couple of questions that are pressing on his mind as the father of a toddler who, he suspects, may not inherit the Jewish comic sensibility he received from his own parents. The first is whether there’s something inherently Jewish about American comedy, an issue that spans conversations about the Yiddish rhythms of comics like Don Rickles and more sober discussions about comedy’s origins in oppression and pain. The second is whether Jewish North Americans’ increasing assimilation into mainstream culture well into the twenty-first century is distancing more recent comedians—and lay enthusiasts like Zweig—from their roots.
This is an interesting two-pronged thesis, though Zweig’s conversational style and range of subjects have their limits: his interview with Toronto’s Mark Breslin is the closest the film comes to historicizing Jewish comedy, and one yearns for more basic information about the importance of places like the Borscht Belt and the Catskill Mountains, which are addressed only in passing. Still, much of the film is absorbing, our interest stemming from Zweig’s obvious personal investment in the subject as well as the often poignant, always funny stories of his subjects, who impress with their range of idiosyncratic voices. It’s a rare testament to how effective talking-head documentaries can be, provided the talking heads are saying interesting things in novel ways.
Blue Is the Warmest Colour
Directed by Abdellatif Kechiche
The Royal (608 College Street)
Though it was the most talked-about film at Cannes and the eventual Palme d’Or winner, Blue Is the Warmest Colour is nothing too earth-shattering. At most, it’s a handsomely produced and tender portrait of a doomed romance between high-school student Adèle (Adèle Exarchopoulos) and visual artist Emma (Léa Seydoux), enlivened only by some of the longest sex scenes in recent memory.
Those sessions, gamely played by the two leads, rival the acrobatics of the puppet sex in Team America, but it’s arguably director Abdellatif Kechiche who’s having the best time here. Kechiche is so fixated on the actresses’ ecstatic faces and, more worryingly, assorted body parts—all framed in close-up—that one suspects he’s patting his own back behind the camera, satisfied at his ostensible documentary realism in capturing lesbian sex at its most intimate.
Since the film’s debut at Cannes, Julie Maroh, the author of the graphic novel on which it was based, has disowned it as lesbian pornography for straight, male audiences. That reading may do a disservice to the earnest stretches devoted to Adèle’s burgeoning career as a teacher and to her heartache over her stalling relationship with art star Emma, but in the end it’s hard to shake, in part because of a lengthy monologue by a directorial surrogate character in the middle of the film—a seemingly endless speech about Western art’s difficulty with depicting the elusive woman’s orgasm. Whether this is self-parody or audience instruction is hard to say, but what’s certain is that it has little to do with the film’s ostensible subject, the maturation of Adèle, whose perspective is seemingly abandoned in the sex scenes that linger over her body, and then further sidelined by pompous declarations about her sexuality. Colour us unimpressed.