I was faced with a simple choice on the first Friday afternoon of the Toronto International Film Festival: what type of pregnancy movie did I want to see? I had already cheerfully chuckled through the masculine perspective of the scenario offered up by Judd Apatow’s nuclear-family reaffirming Knocked Up during the summer, in which any political morality regarding the personal decision to carry the child to term is largely sidestepped in favor of an inquiry as to whether Apatow’s male protagonist was willing to extricate himself from an overly juvenile lifestyle and thereby prove himself mature enough to handle the responsibilities of adulthood. I had also blissfully beamed through the feminine confection provided by Adrienne Shelly’s Waitress, where most of our pregnant protagonist’s dilemmas related to external elements preventing her from personal fulfillment after years of servitude. If these movies were any indication, no North American filmmaker was going to touch the messy details of pregnancy. Now, with summer winding down and a TIFF Press Pass providing me with options, my two choices accentuated the conflicting perspectives of global filmmakers when dealing with controversial topics. Did I want to catch the humorous, independent, stirring American take on both teenaged pregnancy and appreciative adoption that was offered by Juno, or did I want to endure the bleak, austere, distressing Romanian conception of oppressive bureaucracy and illegal abortion chronicled in detail by 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days?
After overhearing a number of people espousing how fantastic they found Reitman’s film to be, I figured that Juno would likely open across the continent in December so I could catch it later in the year. Meanwhile, Mungiu’s more severe and demanding film would probably not arrive in Winnipeg for months, if at all, so I better see it now. I had already heard about the most startling scene included in 4 Months…, but I honestly couldn’t make out what I was looking at until a slight motion confirmed previous reports. The image actually wasn’t all that graphic, but the audacity of displaying such a moment was enough to send a few more audience members scattering towards the exits. There was absolutely no way the folks at the Juno screening were being subjected to anything like this.
Since 4 Months… debut at Cannes, Mungiu’s inclusion of the image has sparked both complaint and commendation, but the director’s creative choice demonstrated a remarkable resolve and provided a benchmark by which to measure the tenacity of other filmmakers. If nothing else, the most memorable films that I watched in 2007 revealed that the filmmakers responsible for their assembly were relentless in conceiving and exploring the circumstances created within their frame, and unwilling to compromise, no matter how severe, unappealing, or oppressive their personal vision might appear to observers. In essence, these films proved that, as always, it is not really the topic you choose, but how you choose to treat your topic.
Perhaps North American filmmakers refused to address certain taboo topics due to the implicit creative restrictions that our profit-driven culture places upon our artists. However, even while operating within these boundaries, a number of artists managed to flourish when concentrating on abstract ideas that they smuggled into more conventional narratives. While not explicitly addressed as the central subject matter, the topic that fascinated a number of filmmakers this past year was the ability of cinema to distort our perceptions of reality. Thus we were treated to an assortment of films that created a delicate contrast between recreated reality and manufactured myth, while others conjured up a sublime blend fabricated fact and faithful fiction. The trend allowed a handful of filmmakers to construct movies scrutinizing the mercurial nature of fame by examining how the media, including movies, altered and amended our collective conception of prominent public figures. Thus, in these final days in December, I have to admit that 2007 was an exceptionally fine year for films, particularly those crafted by filmmakers enthusiastic enough to thoroughly explore their subject matter.
While it might be more acceptable to choose something obscure, exotic, or classic as the pinnacle of this year’s achievements, in my mind, no film in 2007 examines, exhibits, and exemplifies the concept of exhaustive determination better than David Fincher’s Zodiac. Truthfully, after all these months, I find that Fincher’s film continues to consume my mind. Fincher’s investigation of both the direct and collateral damage caused by the Zodiac killings was probably too methodical, meticulous, and comprehensive to be wholly embraced by audiences, and its various disparate elements certainly baffled its studio’s marketing department. The movie apparently annoyed many viewers with its refusal to conform to any traditional narrative path, particularly its unwillingness to further infest theatres with another standard serial killer thriller, a design which Fincher ironically helped pioneer.
Unlike conventional serial-killer movies, Fincher’s latest film avoided excessive stylization while recreating its mandatory murder scenes, bluntly addressing the grisly actions in a distressingly matter-of-fact manner. Instead, Zodiac maintained its tension and delivered its chills during moments that other movies usually find mundane, as its investigators confronted their faulty assumptions and uncovered startling new details while wading through an excess of information. As we tagged along with the detectives and journalists assigned to the track down an unknown evil entity, Zodiac soon twisted from an ordinary police procedural about the collection and (mis)interpretation of information, to an opaque depiction of a killer capable of achieving infamy by deftly manipulating a media prone towards sensationalistic stories, to a deliberation upon cinema’s deceitful influence upon or collective perceptions of reality, and finally into an intense contemplation upon the destructive aspects of obsession, including its eventual futility.
Thus, the moment within Zodiac that I continue to fixate upon is when a fervid Graysmith, portrayed impressively by Jake Gyllenhaal, is confronted by his bewildered wife and finally discloses his desperate “need to know” everything about the Zodiac. In fact, nothing else in 2007 was as puzzlingly poignant or as heartbreakingly honest as Graysmith’s admission that his pathetically fanatical investigation, which eventually frayed his sanity and isolated him from family, was fuelled by an irrational sensation that “nobody else will” continue to care about a topic that Graysmith feels a profound personal connection towards. It’s this moment that continues to rattle around in my psyche during these icy winter months, as I contemplate Fincher’s film while absorbed in my own obsessions. Since I spent the year attempting to remain enthusiastic while writing about film, perhaps the strength of the scene is how easy it is to relate to Graysmith’s warped perspective that his solitary scrutiny would somehow ensure that this subject matter, with which he finds a deep personal connection, would not be forgotten by a society more concerned with current topics. It’s not surprising that other critics recognized a resemblance to Graysmith’s stubborn soul and found his fight to be noble, no matter how demented and futile his struggles sometimes appeared.
As always, my list of films remains incomplete, as a few films have yet to arrive in my local theatre, most notably PT Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and the aforementioned Juno. Anyway, on to my list of the year’s most memorable films:
Manufacturing Dissent (Rick Caine & Debbie Melnyk)
Casey Affleck, for
Paul Schneider & Garret Dillahunt
Never trust the creative inclinations of a teenaged actress, no matter how talented you believe her to be. If I had followed this rule, I would have avoided attending screenings of Across the Universe and In Bloom (now re-titled as The Life Before Her Eyes), which were without a doubt the two most unbelievably pretentious movies I endured this year.
I’m rather ashamed to admit that I’ve never been more bored while watching a respected director demonstrate his mastery of a medium as I was during David Lynch’s Inland Empire. It’s obvious that Inland Empire is an impressive and ambitious artistic endeavour, but Lynch’s filmmaking started to feel overly repetitive within each new sequence he unravelled. Quite honestly, towards the conclusion of the film, I was actually wondering if Lynch’s methods work better when the eccentric filmmaker is struggling to extricate his style from the creative boundaries imposed upon him by traditional filmmaking conventions, rather than when he is allowed complete autonomy.