Vote For Pedro (and Larry)
The small but conspicuous coterie of film critics seen perambulating this year's Toronto Film Festival decked out in red-and-white "Vote For Pedro" t-shirts were not, despite the potential misunderstanding, expressing their undying love for Napoleon Dynamite. Rather, the Pedro in question was Pedro Costa, the 47-year-old Portuguese director whose sixth film, Colossal Youth, received its North American premiere at the festival. The shirts were the brainchild of the Canadian critic Mark Peranson, whose Cinema Scope magazine has been one of the most vocal supporters of Costa's film ever since its first, highly contentious screenings in Cannes, and who promised, in his most recent editor's note, still more Colossal Youth coverage to come. (And lest you jump to the conclusion — as some already have — that Costa is merely the latest pet cause of a few obscurantist critics who can't resists the urge to hold themselves above the "average" moviegoer, I should add that one of the other great enthusiasms of the current issue of Cinema Scope is none other than the Will Ferrell NSCAR comedy Talladega Nights.)
As I myself reported in these pages back in May, Colossal Youth, which runs two-and-a-half hours and "stars" a cast of real Cape Verdean immigrants enacting thinly fictionalized versions of their lives in a decaying Lisbon housing slum, isn't for everyone. In Cannes, where you expect to find people with an appetite for challenging cinema, the film sent droves of critics and other journalists streaming out of its first press screening and was said to have bitterly divided the Wong Kar-Wai-led jury between those who wanted the film to win the festival's top prize, the Palme d'Or, and those who thought it shouldn't get anything at all. (In the end, the latter camp triumphed.)
As for me, I will not contest the claim that Colossal Youth is demanding viewing. But I also feel it is a brave and nightmarishly beautiful achievement, in which marginalized people who so rarely have a voice in cinema are given one, unbound by the shackles of sanctimony or self-important "social realism." This is something close to the cinematic equivalent of blank verse, a new language of expression to which we must constantly readjust as the movie is playing across the screen. And like most radical achievements in the arts (The Rite of Spring, anyone?), its entrance into the world will continue to be greeted with hostility and derision.
Even in Toronto, Costa couldn't catch a break: The two public screenings of Colossal Youth were scheduled at inhospitable times for a long, difficult film (including one at 8:30 AM, in a festival where almost no film starts before 9:00). And on the day of the film's press screening, it became clear that the last reel of the print had been mistakenly subtitled into French instead of English. (At the public screenings, a flyer containing an English translation of the missing dialogue was handed out to ticket holders, who, of course, found it impossible to read in the dark.)
Still, the mere fact that Colossal Youth was even selected for Toronto ought to be considered a remarkable occurrence, given the film's absence from nearly all of the fall's major North American film festivals, including Telluride and New York, and excepting Vancouver. (And if you expect the film will turn up in L.A. during AFI Fest in November, don't get your hopes up.) That's a compelling reminder that, despite the easily gotten impression that it is little more than a glam press junket for some of the Hollywood's highest-profile fall releases, Toronto remains the largest and most important film festival in North America and — with more than 250 new feature-length films to choose from — no more or less than what each individual makes of it for his or her self.
To be sure, there are many critics and reporters who wing into town for Toronto's first weekend only to gorge themselves on those movies with confirmed U.S. distribution — or those that seem hot to sell — and to "bank" interviews with the talent (a term I use loosely) responsible for making them. (Perhaps more disconcerting, there are those newspaper and magazine editors who believe that's exactly what their critics and reporters should be using the festival for.) But Toronto is also where, in the course of a single day, I managed to see Syndromes and a Century, the latest work by the gifted young Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul; Belle Toujours, a 39-years-later sequel to Luis Buñuel's Belle de Jour, made by 97-year-old Portuguese director Manoel de Olivera; Paul Verhoeven's Blackbook, the first film the Robocop and Starship Troopers auteur has made in his native Holland in nearly 25 years; and Still Life, one of two new films by Chinese director Jia Zhangke being presented in Toronto this year.
For now, though, I will focus on the fifth film I saw on that dies mirabilis, because it is one likeliest to have missed the radar of even some of the more discriminating festivalgoers. It's called The Last Winter, and it's the latest slice of existential modern horror from writer-director (and sometimes actor) Larry Fessenden. I say latest because, though he is hardly a household name, Fessenden has spent much of the last 15 years putting his richly idiosyncratic and highly political spin on a series of timeless horror-fantasy myths. Indeed, it is often by virtue of what Fessenden does that we come to understand why those age-old scary stories have lost none of their creepy resonance over time. In No Telling (1991), Fessenden used the basic architecture of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein as a means of weighing in on the debates over animal testing and the morality of science. In the Independent Spirit Award-winning Habit (1997), vampirism stood as a metaphor for dependency — chemical and emotional — and the alienation of modern life in the big city. And in Wendigo (2001) — Fessenden's best-known film to date — the titular creature may be a werewolf-like Native American spirit, but the real force wreaking havoc on its characters' lives is the clash between the ancient and the modern, between "civilized" man and his primal, animalistic nature.
These are not traditional monster movies by a long shot. Rather, like George Romero (whose own deconstructionist vampire movie, Martin, predates Habit by two decades), Fessenden is interested most in the collision of real and imagined horrors, and in the human impulse to fashion myths and legends as a way of giving meaning to a fundamentally shapeless world. The Last Winter is certainly no exception — much to the dismay, I suspect, of some of the clearly mystified acquisitions and distributions executives who wandered into the movie's Toronto press screening, clearly lured by the promises of "ghost story" and "supernatural horror" proffered by the description in the festival catalogue.
Set in remote Alaska, the film concerns an American oil company's top-secret drilling project, designed to bring "energy independence" to the American people while, quite possibly, wreaking havoc on the delicate environment of the Arctic tundra. Not that such warnings (most of them issued by a visiting scientist played by James Le Gros) do much to deter the drilling team's blustery leader (an excellent Ron Perlman) from blasting ahead with the project. Until, that is, some unseen, primordial force seems to bubble up from the ground along with that black gold, infecting everyone and everything with which it comes into contact. Could it be the spirit of the Wendigo yet again? Perhaps. But as usual in a Fessenden film, in The Last Winter mankind is its own worst enemy.
Filmed in Iceland in breathtaking 35mm widescreen, The Last Winter is Fessenden's biggest and most "professional" production to date, but in making that leap, the filmmaker has in no way compromised his artistic integrity. True to form, the movie is more about disquieting mood and serenely creepy atmosphere than about slam-bang action or shock-horror jolts. When people start to die, the survivors don't run around screaming in a hysterical panic, but rather rationally and intelligently weigh their options. And the final, apocalyptic moments are presented less as a "twist" than as the inevitable. The Last Winter won't create much "buzz" in the industry press and won't win many fans among those who place the saving of union jobs above the repairing of the ozone layer. But this is a horror movie with many inconvenient truths to tell about the ways in which we are willingly destroying our planet. Oh, and it's also scary as fuck.