Inside Out 2009: What the Fig?
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Inside Out 2009: What the Fig?

Photo courtesy of GAT Productions.

Torontoist took a day off from Inside Out, but we now resume our daily coverage of the queer film fest.
If you’ve got a hankering for movie stars, you might want to check out Bernard and Doris, a recent TV movie that shows a fictionalized account of the twilight years of heiress Doris Duke and her butler, starring Susan Sarandon and Ralph Fiennes. But the big-ticket screening of the night is definitely Fig Trees, the new documentary/opera by acclaimed director John Greyson. If a “documentary/opera” sounds bizarre to you, that’s because it is. It follows the journeys of Toronto AIDS activist Tim McCaskell and his South African counterpart, Zackie Achmat, fusing interview footage with lush visual sequences, musical numbers, and, yes, opera.
The inspiration is the little-remembered 1934 opera Four Saints in Three Acts, an equally bizarre project, featuring music by Virgil Thomson, a libretto by Gertrude Stein, and an at-the-time revolutionary all-black cast. Fig Trees uses elements of Four Saints, but also works with original operatic music, as well as contemporary pop song parodies. The result is a film that out-Time Codes Time Code, cramming the screen with multiple images each with their own audio tracks, multiple subtitle tracks that cannot possibly be read concurrently, and a general barrage of information that skips back and forth so frequently between a variety of subjects, both real and fictional, that is becomes impossible to know what’s going on. Artistically, this feels like a step backwards for Greyson. His imagery is as gorgeous as it has ever been, and he has succeeded in making a film as grandiose as he could have ever wanted, but he has lost the coherence and elegance of his more narrative-based work, like 1996’s phenomenal Lilies. In fact, Fig Trees feels, in a lot of ways, like a more-successful retread of his 1993 AIDS musical Zero Patience, a film from which it borrows a musical number. There’s fascinating subject matter in here, somewhere, but if you can find it under all the albino squirrels, waterfalls, and “Gertrude Stein Karmaceuticals,” you deserve a prize.
Bernard and Doris screens at 7:15 p.m. at the Isabel Bader.
Fig Trees screens at 9:30 p.m. at the Isabel Bader.