Critical Mass: VIFF 2018

October 18, 2018

Shifting critical practice to filmmaking.

I kept a low profile at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival. I lodged with friends whose lives are blessedly untethered to film culture and did not consort with my fellow film critics in cafés, bars, eateries, hotel lobbies, toilets, or pass-holder line-ups. I did, however, spend a surprising amount of time seeing their work projected on VIFF screens.

Aside from his long and distinctive career as a critic and editor-at-large for Film Comment — and his tenure as director of the New York Film Festival — Kent Jones, for many years, has also moonlit as a filmmaker. Until now, Jones’ has made nonfiction films primarily about films. Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows, A Letter to Elia (co-directed with another formidable scholar by the name of Martin Scorsese) and Hitchcock/Truffaut each constitute a significant contribution to the sculpting of film history. Diane, which screened in Tribeca and Locarno before having its Canadian premiere at VIFF, is Jones’ first fiction feature. The fear with such a transition is that the integrity of the critic-turned-documentarian will dissolve under the pressures of narrative filmmaking, particularly since no one’s more susceptible to the anxiety of influence that one who has devoted their career to analyzing art. Happily, something like the reverse is true: Jones’ documentaries are smart, accessible and respectable but conveyed little in the way of deep engagement with the form; Diane, meanwhile, is an elegant, affecting synthesis of accrued knowledge and personal, unpretentious storytelling. What’s more, it possesses the rare distinction of employing a more or less classical approach with an almost radical attention to the kinds of characters who are, at best, visible only in the margins of even the most independent American cinema.

Set in rural Massachusetts, Diane follows the titular septuagenarian (a masterful Mary Kay Place) as she administers to the needs of others until, very gradually, those others’ needs dissipate and her own come calling. Diane is all give and no take: she pays regular visits to her hospitalized, cervical-cancer-ridden cousin; brings groceries to her lost-cause addict son; checks in on various elderly or ailing relatives; and serves meals at a homeless shelter. She’s no saint, as will be evidenced as the story progresses, and makes no great show of her generosity—which is all the more reason for Jones to wonder about her, about what drives her and what will become of her. To be certain, there are some traces of the sort of cinephilia one might expect from a critic — the Bressonian images of hands, the cameo appearance of Argentine filmmaker Matías Piñero — but one never gets the impression that Jones is winking at his colleagues. Rather, Diane explores terrain akin to that of Kenneth Lonergan or (another critic) Paul Schrader, illuminating the knotty, unglamorous, often fraught lives of so-called “simple” Americans who reside far from that country’s photogenic metropolises.

In the last eight years or so, British critic Mark Cousins seems to have shifted his critical practice almost entirely over to filmmaking: he’s churned out ten essay films on film, filmmakers and film history since releasing his epic revisionist polemic The Story of Film: An Odyssey in 2011. Cousins’ The Eyes of Orson Welles premiered at Cannes and made its Canadian premiere in VIFF’s Music/Art/Design program. An open letter to a dead man, the film reconsiders Welles’ legacy as a somewhat self-sabotaging renaissance man and innovator by focusing on his roots in literature, theatre and visual art and gaining access to Beatrice Welles’ private collection of her father’s drawings, notebooks and sundry effects. There are no great revelations here and that in no ways diminishes the film’s pleasures; aside from an ill-advised but mercifully brief “reply” from Welles, the only source of disappointment here arises from the fact that though Cousins is so very gifted in drawing connections between images and designs over time, geography and media, so very good at seeing movies in the world and the world in the movies, he clutters The Eyes with far too many words, spelling out conclusions in his abundant voice-over that were perfectly self-evident in his arrangement of visual materials.

The third and final critic whose work I’ll note here is that of my friend and fellow TFCA member Adam Nayman, who plays a not un-sizeable role in Spice It Up, a deliciously ridiculous movie from Toronto filmmakers Lev Lewis, Yonah Lewis and Calvin Thomas that had its world premiere in VIFF’s Future/Present program. (The trio’s collective credits include Amy George, The Oxbow Cure and The Intestine.) A prismatic narrative that slips between the dramatically inert story of an introverted film student’s struggle to respond to her advisors’ useless notes and that same student’s absurd, quasi-Rivette-esque, no-budget feature project about an energetic septet of highly excitable high-school girlfriends who join the army and become embroiled in a maybe conspiracy—a sort of go-for-it narrative that goes gloriously nowhere—Spice It Up is shamelessly referential and sui generis. Nayman plays an educator at the very institution where Nayman works as an educator. In his very first scene he comments on a project in a manner that is very convincingly Adam Naymanlike, which is very clever since later in the film he will provide other commentaries that are far less Adam Naymanlike (e.g.: they’re dumb) while still sounding like Adam Nayman. Yeah, yeah, I’m biased, but he’s terrific. And if you want to witness one of the most idiosyncratic products to arise from the strange miasma of Canadian independent cinema in recent years, petition your local exhibitors to take a chance on Spice It Up.

José Teodoro