The best repertory and art-house screenings, special presentations, lectures, and limited engagements in Toronto.
At rep cinemas this week: Toronto filmmaker Ron Mann’s look at the life and work of Robert Altman, a finely observed American independent relationship drama, and an examination of the lives and careers of backup singers.
Directed by Ron Mann
TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West)
Early in Ron Mann’s amiable tour through the career of the major American filmmaker Robert Altman, the late director speaks of having been fired from an early television job by Jack Warner. “That fool,” he recalls the Warner Bros. chief saying of his work, “has actors talking at the same time.” If that penchant for overlapping dialogue—and the resultant transformation of sound design from the product of a single static boom mike to something more dynamic and heterogeneous— would become Altman’s major aesthetic contribution to cinema, it’s perhaps his rich work with ensemble casts that most resonates now, nearly a decade after his death. Unlike its subject, Altman isn’t so keen on reshaping the medium, but it is attuned to that humanist slant that made Altman so fond of listening to people talking (often at the same time), reanimating the director’s filmography through warm testimonials from collaborators and family, as well as illuminating comments from the man himself, presumably culled from hours of his public appearances.
Unfolding through a mix of film clips, some occasionally goofy animated graphics, a few new interviews (played in voiceover), and Altman’s own tart archival testimony, the film is organized around answers given to a question from Mann about what defines the adjective “Altmanesque.” The most definitive answer might come from Altman’s frequent collaborator Lily Tomlin, who answers simply, “creating a family.” Though Mann touches on his subject’s nonconformist politics and does a good job of suggesting how they might be read into his art, the strongest impression one comes away with is indeed of Altman as an unorthodox family man—creating an extended professional tribe over the course of nearly forty wildly varied films.
Altman has its Canadian premiere this Friday ahead of TIFF Cinematheque’s retrospective Company Man: The Best of Robert Altman. The screening will be introduced by Mann and Altman’s widow Kathryn Altman.
Tiger Tail in Blue
Directed by Frank V. Ross
Camera Bar (1028 Queen Street West)
Although he’s come up in the same mumblecore circle and Chicago lo-fi filmmaking community that recently turned Joe Swanberg into something of an American independent star, Frank V. Ross hasn’t yet broken through in quite the same way. That’s a shame, considering the strength of 2012’s impeccably observed Tiger Tail in Blue, a singular relationship drama.
In addition to writing and directing, Ross plays Christopher, a freelance writer and part-time server who struggles to make ends meet while his wife Melody (Rebecca Spence), a high-school English teacher, covers the rent from month to month. They’re a healthy pair, as couples in romantic dramas go, but they’re not untested by their economic woes and by Christopher’s growing interest in a co-worker (Spence again, then later Megan Mercier, in a shift whose description might constitute a spoiler), who seems to remind him of his partner.
Spence’s tricky performance as both long-term spouse and new love is high-wire stuff, but Ross is after something more modest than that stunt casting might suggest. This is at once a strong naturalistic drama, wiser about money and the rifts it opens between people than most films of its ilk, and a formal accomplishment, full of smart, layered montages and a finely tuned jazz score by John Medeski and Chris Speed.
The screening is co-presented by MDFF and The Seventh Art, and will feature a conversation with Ross.
20 Feet From Stardom
Directed by Morgan Neville
99 Sudbury (99 Sudbury Street)
Crowd-pleasing, energetic, and full of canonical rock and soul recordings, 20 Feet From Stardom was the clear darling of 2013’s documentary award deliberations—a cheerful backgrounder on American popular-music history that only a churl could hate. Whether it’s an important documentary (or even an interesting one), though, is another matter altogether.
Morgan Neville’s film treats the subject of backup singers, following a few major players like Darlene Love and Merry Clayton through their career highs and lows. In the process, the film attempts to chart an alternate history of the industry through some of its most unsung talents. That’s a good topic, which might have yielded something revelatory in different hands, but Neville seems content to operate as a slick DJ rather than as an anthropologist, to the inevitable disappointment of those who might come to a film like this more for the cultural background than for the chance to hear the hits mixed with a dash of rumours about Phil Spector. Despite the fact that nearly the entire cast consists of African American women, for example, very little is made of how black background singers are used as authenticating devices in the white male rock of figures (and onscreen talking heads) like Mick Jagger. Likewise, the phenomenon of background artists operating as visual stimuli is barely touched upon, as if it would be too unsavoury to get into some of the racial or gender politics of what seems like an awfully difficult profession.
In the place of these insights, we get standard commentary from the likes of Bruce Springsteen about how backup vocalists lack the ego and the narcissism of stars—a nice sentiment, to be sure, but one that doesn’t say much about the systematic inequality that drove powerhouse singers like Love out of the industry for a time.
20 Feet From Stardom is screened by the Open Roof Festival, which pairs outdoor music with film screenings. It will be proceeded by a performance by Jill Godin. For more information on tickets, see the festival website.