What makes a Master?

September 6, 2014

"Trick or Treaty?" Alanis Obomsawin
“Trick or Treaty?” Alanis Obomsawin

By: Adam Nayman

Of all the programs at the Toronto International Film Festival, Masters is at once the most rarified and the most difficult to define. While sections like Discovery or TIFF Docs basically do what they say on the tin – i.e. offer up movies by new filmmakers or non-fiction cinema – Masters is supposedly organized as a showcase for directors who have reached a pinnacle of artistry that separates them from their peers. But a quick look at the figures selected this for year’s Masters program suggests that mastery is very much in the eye of the beholder.

Take for the example the British director Michael Winterbottom, tapped for his new drama The Face Of An Angel, a fictionalized dramatization of the 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher by her roommate Amanda Knox. Since arriving on the scene in the early 90s, Winterbottom has been one of the most prolific filmmakers in the United Kingdom, producing works in a variety of modes from historical drama (The Claim) to science-fiction (Code 46), as well as a wildly successful comedy miniseries (The Trip) that has already spawned one sequel. It feels like Winterbottom has made more movies – and more different types of movies – than any of his peers, and his eclecticism of both subject and style is refreshing in comparison to those filmmakers who work the same groove over and over again.

On the other hand, Winterbottom is hardly what even the most generous critic would term a master filmmaker. His best films, like the Manchester music scene comedy 24 Hour Party People (2002), are loose-limbed creatures, and when he does plunk down into a specific genre, the results are often disastrous, as in The Killer Inside Me (2010), a mannered, grotesque and unconvincing adaptation of Jim Thompson’s pulpy 1951 novel of the same name. The same restlessness that leads Winterbottom to pursue such wildly different projects from year to year also keeps the movies themselves from feeling like fully realized works. Nobody who has at through the patchy likes of A Mighty Heart or The Look of Love could possibly call Winterbottom a master; he’d be more accurately consigned to a new section called “Veterans.”

"Face Of An Angel" Michael Winterbottom
“Face Of An Angel” Michael Winterbottom

Where Winterbottom has made maybe four films (out of nearly two dozen) that might warrant inclusion in a section called “Masters,” Andrey Zyvagintsev has only made four films, period. His new feature, Leviathan, won Best Screenplay at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival, a prize that some observers thought was a consolation for not getting the Palme D’Or; the reviews were strong across the board. Beginning with his debut The Return (2003), Zyvagintsev has worked in a strong, moody style; it’s easy to see that this is a filmmaker with a distinctive signature.

But what makes this young (but not that young) Russian filmmaker a “Master” while his contemporary Lisandro Alonso and his amazing fifth feature Jauja resides in Wavelengths? Masters promises “the latest from the world’s most influential art-house filmmakers,” and the evidence says that Alonso’s spartan, crypto-ethnographic style has impacted far more contemporary filmmakers more Zvyagintsev’s old-school symbolism, which feels mostly like the sum of other influences (namely the director’s countrymen Aleksandr Sokurov and, especially, Andrei Tarkovsky). And that doesn’t even account for the great leap forward that Jauja represents in Alonso’s own cinema, set as it is in a different time period (its predecessors are all present-tense) and featuring a bona fide worldwide movie star, Viggo Mortensen. And what about Alonso’s Wavelengths peer Matías Piñeiro, who has produced two consecutive features – Viola and this year’s The Princess of France – that are scrupulously controlled, beautifully produced and interestingly idiosyncratic – in a word, masterful? Piñeiro and Alonso are young, but not so much more so than the 40-year-old Zyvagintsev.

There are of course directors who richly deserve their designation as Masters, starting with Jean-Luc Godard’s Adieu au langage, which probably could not be programmed anywhere else (except for maybe Wavelengths). Probably nobody would begrudge the presence of his fellow octogenarian Im Kwon-Taek, who has made 102 films – even more than Michael Winterbottom – and has been working at a high level for the past decade or so. Kryztof Zanussi, one of the last men standing from the Polish New Wave of the 1960s, has made his first movie in a long time with Foreign Body, and it’s a nice gesture of respect to place him in Masters (as well as providing continuity with this summer’s Lightbox retrospective on Polish cinema). On the younger side, it’s wonderful to see the indefatigable Hong Sang Soo recognized for the almost impossible high level of consistency he’s displayed over the last twenty years (he’s like Spoon of South Korean cinema). Hong’s stock in trade is variations on a theme, and Hill of Freedom is reportedly another wry comedy of desire – and probably more or less as masterful as all the rest.

"Hill of Freedom" Hong Sang-soo
“Hill of Freedom” Hong Sang-soo

Ultimately, it seems that one of the less ephemeral factors underwriting Masters is that the films, whatever their respective qualities or the rising and falling reputations of their makers, are ones that need the attendant patina of artistic prestige to attract an audience. Consider that Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, master filmmakers by any measuring stick, are screening Two Days, One Night in the Special Presentations section, likely because the presence of star Marion Cotillard attracts a level of red-carpet attention; ditto Olivier Assayas and Clouds of Sils Maria, which features Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart. Both of these films were defeated at Cannes by Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep, which is in Masters. The point is not that Ceylan is (more) of a master than the Dardennes or Assayas, but that a three-hour Turkish drama with no movie stars needs the contextualization of mastery to sell tickets, whereas the more seemingly accessible French works do not.

The most publicized 2014 Masters title is Trick Or Treaty?, by Alanis Obomsawin. She’s one of only two female filmmakers in the programme (the other being Ann Hui), but more significantly, it’s the first time that a Native Canadian filmmaker has been so honored. (She’s also the only Canadian in the section period, since Master David Cronenberg has big enough stars in his movie to warrant a Gala). And yet Trick or Treaty? doesn’t feel like a political selection so much as an acknowledgement of a large body of work that’s always been formally and intellectually rigorous but often overshadowed at film festivals – including TIFF. It’s a good call, and it almost makes up for the inclusion of Bent Hamer. Almost.