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Toronto: Anton Sirius on SAINT RALPH, THE WRITER OF O, SILVER CITY and more!

Hey folks, Harry here with the latest from the mighty annointed one, Anton Sirius! This time he's got quite an interesting run of films and news... and the idea that this... Anton... this Mr Sirius did this after partying at Asia Argento's hopefully properly debauched party. Here ya go my friends, here it all is...

Day Eleventy-Snee

After the party Asia Argento threw last night, my ability to distinguish time and date is completely fragged. Sorry.

Some accumulated news:

- I got a sneak peak at Johnnie To's next project at the end of our interview. It's called Election, and no it's not a Hong Kong remake of the Reese Witherspoon pic. Here's the plot: every two years the Triads vote for a new chairman. This time, there are five contenders.

Heh heh. Tell me that doesn't get you salivating.

He started shooting as soon as he got back home from the festival, so with any luck I'll be reviewing it this time next year.

- All I can say is, some people are just born stupid.

There were protesters at the first screening of Casuistry (reviewed below), idiots who somehow think making a movie about a thing is equal to glorifying it, and (in the words of one moron with a megaphone) 'creating a market' for the subject matter. I guess then Steven Spielberg should be on trial for war crimes, because clearly he created a market for genocide with Schindler's List.


Unbeknownst to just about anyone, Jesse Power (the subject of the film) had acquired a ticket. Rather than just slip into the theater, he actually went up and started taunting the protesters, who of course immediately recognized him. The cops quickly threw Power in handcuffs and bundled him away in a paddy wagon.

Now here's the REALLY stupid part. Jesse Power, as best I and a couple of other witnesses to the event can figure, is still on probation. If the cops just took him away for his own protection, no sweat for him. If they actually arrested him for public mischeif or some such though, he'll be in violation of his parole.

Fucking schmucks, the lot of 'em.

- Once again Stephen Chow did not make it to the festival, and once again the rumor is that the Canadian government won't let him in the country because of his 'mob connections'.

I'm not going to mention any names, but if 'mob connections' kept you out of Canada half the L.A. contingent and Goddess knows what percent of the Italians wouldn't be here either.

Mustn't... use... 'R' word...

* * * * *

Casuistry: The Art of Killing a Cat (2004, directed by Zev Asher)

ca·su·ist·ry n. Specious or excessively subtle reasoning intended to rationalize or mislead.

(It might be a cliche to begin a review with a dictionary definition, but in this case it's absolutely essential. Until you understand what the title means, you can't understand the film.)

A few years ago in Toronto, an art student named Jesse Power had the vague notion to do a project dealing with the inherent hypocrisy of meat-eating. To that end, he and two friends videotaped themselves butchering a cat, which Jesse planned to eat on camera later. A housemate called the police; with a skinned, beheaded feline in the fridge (not to mention the tape) arrests were inevitable. The case became a cause celebre among animal rights activists, and one of the two friends/accomplices, Matt, fled to Vancouver.

Casuistry traces the story of that incident. The infamous video itself is never used; instead, director Asher (who did the Nihilist Spasm Band doc a few years ago) uses a court transcript of the video to great effect. In fact, what the use of the transcript most reminded me of was post-lawsuit versions of Negativland's U2, where the source material's absence just reinforces its impact. That transcript is mixed through the film with interviews from all the principals along with with other odds and ends, including some shocking prologue footage I'll get to in a minute.

The picture that emerges in Casuistry is not just one of Jesse the rationalizer. Everyone in the film, to some extent, seems to cling to unsupportable justifications. The lead detective on the case paints Power as a borderline cult leader. The animal rights crowd can't seem to differentiate between the relative values of human and feline life. One of Power's supporters, local art wanker Jubal Brown, comes off worst of all, spewing platitudes about the nature of art but shifting uncomfortably in his seat when asked why he didn't go to court the day the video itself was aired, and disavowing any responsibility for his gallery's showing of some of Power's work prior to the incident.

Casuistry's greatest strength is its ability to provoke questions rather than provide answers. The relationship between art and artist, artist and audience, art and morality all get put under the microscope. Asher, though, saves the biggest question of all for first. The doc opens with a video piece by Toronto artist Istvan Kantor from the early 1980s, a video which seems to feature two cats being gutted and worn as hats. Unlike Power's 'rough cut' though, the video looks like an art piece, and was shown in an art space to an art crowd.

Kantor received one of Canada's highest awards for cultural achievement in 2004.

* * * * *

Silver City (2004, directed by John Sayles)

A sprawling, scathing jeremiad aimed at the heart of American politics, Silver City (with cinematography, coincidentally enough, by Haskell Wexler) doesn't quite measure up to the best of Sayles' work - but then again, what does?

The film moves on two parallel tracks. Dickie Pilager (played by Chris Cooper) is a gubernatorial candidate in Colorado, the son of a senator and scion of a political dynasty. Dickie's a dim bulb though; a constant malaprop factory with a string of failed businesses behind him, Dickie's got a lead in the polls only by virtue of his religious faith, his last name, and the power of the Pilager machine...

Hmm. Doesn't that sound familiar.

The other half of the story follows Danny (Danny Huston), a former investigative reporter whose career got flushed after a source failed to corraborate an expose he wrote. Danny now works as a private eye, and after Dickie hooks a corpse while fishing for a campaign TV spot, Dickie's political guru Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss) hires Danny to find out who the dead guy is, and whether or not the body was planted as an act of sabotage.

Hang on. Chuck Raven... Karl Rove...

Nah, must be a coincidence.

Anyway, Danny's investigation fires up his old newshound instincts, taking him deep into a Rocky Mountain heart of darkness, as he uncovers a mining scandal and potential environmental disaster, not to mention murder. Needless to say, the powers that be are none too pleased by the direction Danny's nosing around takes.

Silver City ultimately feels unbalanced. The bulk of the plot lies in Danny's hands, but it's Cooper's spot-on turn as you-know-who that's the most interesting part of the movie. Cooper owns the first half of this film, and his virtual absence from its conclusion sticks out like a sore thumb (or, for that matter, a dead fish floating in a lake.) Cooper has come on in the last decade or so as perhaps Hollywood's finest character actor (Lone Star, American Beauty and Adaptation being the best-known examples) Here he is utterly merciless in skewering the outgoing president, making him not a clown but a sad little man, a puppet in way over his head. This seems to be my fest for handing out Academy noms like candy, so here's another one - Cooper for Best Supporting Actor. It's too good, and too true, a performance to ignore.

And in the end, an Oscar-caliber performance is exactly what Silver City needs to make it hold together even as well as it does. This is no Lone Star; the disparate plot threads never quite get woven together to form a whole, but then again they rarely do in real life either (just watch Fahrenheit 9/11.) You can't help but think of Rumsfeld's "known unknowns" here. At the end Danny knows, but can't prove, and the wheels will just keep on turning with or without him.

In the end, Sayles' message is clear: Dickie, like Dubya, like all of his ilk, is not a cause but a symptom. He's the dead fish floating in the lake.

Not the poison in the system that killed it.

* * * * *

The Writer of O (2004, directed by Pola Rapaport)

Some things in a documentary I can forgive. The pretense of objectivity for instance, sham though it might be, can have its uses.

There is one transgression however which I can never overlook, one unforgivable sin that, in my eyes, forever damns the filmmaker to the abyss. That one inviolable law is simply this:

Thou shalt understand what makes your subject special.

Every subject is special of course (Joyce proved that nearly a century ago) but if a filmmaker given me no confidence that they understand, in some fashion, why, then the resulting film feels like a cheat, a surface skimming barely worthy of A&E. And if your subject is an artist or a work of art, the hollow finished product will seem even worse in comparison.

All of which is a roundabout way of saying that the Writer of O is barely worthy of A&E.

The pieces were in place for this movie to work. By combining archive and contemporary footage with recreations of scenes from the Story of O, plus the fact that Dominque Aury (the author) hid behind a pseudonym for 40 years, the opportunity existed for all kinds of explorations of identity and self-image. The book itself, one of the landmarks of erotic fiction, is one of those rare works deserving of being called 'revolutionary' and the milieu of its creation (the Paris of Camus and Miller, Burroughs and Paulhan) is hardly a boring one. Not that you could tell much of that from this movie. Those names and words get mentioned in passing but almost as grace notes (by the way, Tropic of Cancer!) rather than as clues to illuminate.

The worst is the recreations though. Every single contemporary who talks about the Story of O in the film makes it clear that the power of the book comes from its honesty and lack of artifice, its clear precision. If an ass was being penetrated, Aury never flinched away from the language. She told you an ass was being penetrated. Which is why the recreations, featuring cut-aways to birds in flight and, Goddess help me, A TRAIN ENTERING A TUNNEL, aren't just insulting. They are a betrayal of the text.

It's nice that someone made a movie about Aury and all, but the Writer of O is not a fit tribute to her legacy.

* * * * *

Saint Ralph (2004, directed by Michael McGowan)

Every year there're some movies that, after reading the description in the festival book, I put on my 'Never See in a Million Years' list. Saint Ralph was one of those, looking to be a cloyingly sentimental (strike one) Canadian (strike two... no offense to my hosts, but Canadian film has sucked the last few years) period piece kid's movie (yerrrr out!), some sad little Breaking Away meets A Christmas Story wannabe.

And every year, I stumble into a couple of those and get totally blown away by how good they are.

Saint Ralph is on that list too.

How the movie managed to avoid the pitfalls it could so easily have fallen into, I have no idea. The plot revolves around a 14-year-old Catholic school misfit, Ralph, who's mother lies dying in a hospital and whose father never came home from World War II. Ralph, an oddly charming schemer and unflappable optimist, is supposed to be staying with his best friend, but instead he's made up fictional grandparents to be his custodians and lives alone at home. After one run-in too many with the head priest at the school (played by money-in-the-bank Canadian vet actor Gordon Pinsent) Ralph is consigned to the Nietzche-loving Father Hibbert's (Campbell Scott, in yet another great performance) cross country running team to learn discipline. A joke by Father Hibbert about the Boston Marathon, combined with a worsening of his mother's condition, produces a crazy idea in Ralph's head. If he can miraculously win the Boston Marathon, then his mother will be miraculously healed.

See? It should be cloyingly sentimental, and it's not. Instead, Saint Ralph is damn funny. Everyone plays off each other beautifully, including Ralph's love interest, a wannabe nun. The film is sweet without being saccharine, heartwarming without being manipulative, subtle not obvious, honest not fake. It's certainly the best Catholic coming-of-age comedy I've ever seen, and maybe the best film about running since Chariots of Fire.

Wait, hang on, Chariots of Fire is overrated. Make that the best film about running since Marathon Man.

Saint Ralph is not a good 'family' movie. It's a great movie, period, regardless of your age and cynicism level.

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