The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: a lyrical meditation on art and museums, a profile of philosopher Hannah Arendt, and a look at the 1970s band Big Star.
Directed by Jem Cohen
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
To the uninitiated, museums can be unforgivably austere places, crypts where works of art go to die before bored schoolchildren on mandatory field trips. Jem Cohen knows as much, and counters with Museum Hours, which is easily the New York–based experimental filmmaker and all-around firebrand’s most accessible film. A gentle and richly persuasive defensive of taking in art as one might take in oxygen, it’s destined for a long life in cinematheques and art galleries.
In its pairing of Viennese museum guard Johann (Bobby Sommer) and visiting Montrealer Ann (Canadian singer-songwriter Mary Margaret O’Hara), Museum Hours fits nicely into a tradition of recent international almost-romances like Certified Copy and this year’s Before Midnight. Cohen is ultimately interested in how the couple’s conversation about the gallery’s Bruegel collection takes them on a less-than-picturesque tour of Vienna. One might be reminded of the essay films of Chris Marker by Johann’s charming, freewheeling narration, which casually drifts from Bruegel’s tableaus to Johann’s earlier career as a concert promoter for punk bands, an improbable detail from soft-spoken Sommer’s own life.
Though it’s enriched by these contexts, the film doesn’t require one to be any kind of expert—certainly not on Bruegel, whose work is concisely introduced for beginners. At heart, this is an enchanting and uncommonly warm treatise on the pleasures of expanding one’s horizons.
Directed by Margarethe von Trotta
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Films about writers are always in a bind, saddled as they are with the unsexy reality of heroes who spend most of their working days hunched over their desks, hammering out copy. You have to give credit to Margarethe von Trotta, then, for having the gall to make a biopic about the German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt, the most obstinately unfilmable kind of writer. (Arendt is known for covering the trial of Holocaust criminal Adolf Eichmann in a series of New Yorker articles that were adapted into the hugely influential tome Eichmann in Jerusalem, in 1963.) If writing is inherently uncinematic, try making a movie about thinking, a private act with no standard visual shorthand except for a hand resting thoughtfully against a chin.
Hannah Arendt, a handsomely mounted production starring a feisty Barbara Sukowa, does its best, zooming into Arendt’s eyes as she thinks hard about the insect-like bureaucrat she sees on trial, who the scholar famously treated as an emblem of what she called “the banality of evil.” Try as it might to capture Arendt’s focused gaze and intellectual acumen, though, von Trotta’s film overdoes the surface gestures, forcing its protagonist to spout her insights in easily digestible soundbites and turning every secondary character into an expository sounding board. Supporters coo things like, “That’s my Hannah!” at her every utterance, while detractors huff insults like, “That’s Hannah Arendt: more clever than she thinks!”
That handholding approach is a shame, given the undeniable force of the material, and von Trotta’s otherwise astute intermingling of dramatic reenactments and bracing archival footage of Eichmann’s trial. Wobbly as the execution is, there’s still something to admire about a film this committed to nuanced thought. One only wishes that interest in thinking as a way of life came across more in the filmmaking, which too often settles for the path of least resistance.
Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me
Directed by Drew DeNicola and Olivia Mori
Cineplex Odeon Yonge and Dundas (10 Dundas Street East)
Although it was championed by musicians as disparate as R.E.M. and The Flaming Lips, and although it’s widely considered to have produced three of the best rock albums of the 1970s, Memphis band Big Star never quite managed to turn its cult status into sales or a sustainable career—at least, not while its key creative forces, Alex Chilton and Chris Bell, were still alive. That’s the subject of Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me, an amiable and fairly exhaustive career retrospective that surveys the band’s bumpy history in light of Chilton’s death in 2010.
DeNicola and Mori keep things moving at a good pace, gliding through Chilton’s success as a teen with The Box Tops and Big Star’s early years at Ardent Records. The film also recounts the tumultuous period during which the band’s low-selling debut, #1 Record, enjoyed some success with critics, before Bell embarked on a solo career and died abruptly at age 27. The ensuing material will no doubt appeal mostly to the faithful, while Big Star novices might find tiresome the many fades, dissolves, and cute infographics used to spice up a seemingly infinite supply of archival photos. Still, the filmmakers respect their audience, and even total strangers to the music will likely come away clamouring to listen to “Thirteen” on repeat for the rest of the day.