TIFF Critic’s Notebook 1: Canadian Border Security, Call Me By Your Name, Bodied
It’s customary, when diving into a series of festival dispatches, to include some prefatory, contextualizing stuff up top, which has always been tough for me. This year, though, reality has made it easy: by having me arrive at Sundance a day late thanks to Air Force Two speeding Trump off to the inauguration, and in Canada in the form of a border security official, one officer Nicoara. I’d remembered last year that Canadian customs is a little more severe than you’d expect: I think I answered about five minutes’ worth of questions about anything and everything relating to my TIFF coverage mandate before being released into the wild, while this time it took something like 25 minutes in a form that was both hostile and unpleasant. Averse as I am to using this platform to write the world’s longest one-star Yelp review, this is possibly worth diving into for a second, because it’s not just me: at least two of my colleagues that I spoke to also had 20-minute faceoffs with customs before being admitted in, a degree of hard-assery that seems pretty baffling.
First point: if I had to guess why I was redirected towards questioning by a bored-looking customs official, I can think of four possibilities. One is my passport photo, taken in a moment of pique at a much sweatier, longer-haired and bearded time in my life: the image is, admittedly, possibly alarming. The second is that I checked off “business” as my reason for visiting, and there appears to be a heightened attention on this front, especially regarding potential work visa violations. The third is that (as a Canadian friend who works in NYC under a work visa reminded me) US customs hassles Canadians coming in all the time (e.g.) — especially now that we’ve entered the Trump era, turnabout must seem especially fair play. The fourth reason is a little weirder: Nicoara, I’m almost positive, is a Romanian name, and towards the end of this prolonged interrogation I was asked if my name indicated a Bulgarian background. Apparently there’s a longstanding history of animus between Romania and Bulgaria, which might admittedly be an excellent reason to be rude to someone for 25 minutes under the guise of official business.
In brief: officer Nicoara did not credit my statement that I had come to Toronto for the purpose of covering TIFF for Filmmaker Magazine. Yes, I could pull up emails showing that I had been accredited for that outlet; certainly, I could show that I was on the website masthead as the managing editor; indeed, I had verifiably been here before for the same purpose. None of this, however, proved that I was here this time covering the festival for the magazine; to prove this, it was necessary that I find an email from editor-in-chief Scott Macaulay assigning me to the beat and with a clear delineation of what I would be doing. No such email exists because that’s not how we operate: we’re a tiny staff, a lot of discussions take place in person and over the phone, and I’m a full-time employee, not a freelancer. It would never have occurred to us to write a pro forma email outlining in detail how I would do the same thing this year as last — but, said officer Nicoara, without such an email, dated from the past (one from the present, as I went back and forth on email with Scott, would simply did not do), I could not be admitted to the country.
Now: you could argue that officer Nicoara was just doing her duty, although at a certain point when I’d established a certain number of points about who I represented and so on, you’d think a reasonable person would probably conclude that I could be admitted without risk that I would steal cash from hardworking Canadian film critics. But that doesn’t seem to have been quite it: the tell came quite early, when I apologized for not being able to pull up emails on my phone fast enough and was told, with passive-aggressive faux-amity, “That’s OK, I have a lot of time.” This pretty soon degenerated into open aggression, of the kind often manifested by people in positions of authority who revel in the chance to torment others: repeated explanations of how I hadn’t listened properly to what had been explained to me, how it was her responsibility to maintain security and if I couldn’t “prove my story” I could just go back to the States, how it was my responsibility to ensure I had documentation. This eventually degenerated into a phone call to Scott, and finally I was let through with a warning about being better prepared next time. So here’s my advice: definitely have a smartphone with all supporting evidence ready, create copious documentation you might not think you actually need in case you run into this kind of situation. And, in the words of officer Nicoara, “don’t start any shit with me”: her advice is, in its own particular way, good, and should be heeded.
Anyway! A friend asked me a few months ago what made Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me by Your Name so good, since I’d displayed an uncustomary amount of enthusiasm about it. “The performances are really excellent, the characterizations are patient and detailed, it’s edited to be both expansive overall and tightly cut within each scene, it’s not going for sentimentality but is actually moving…” I stopped, we looked at each other and realized what I was describing was, basically, a normal narrative film, just one done on an unusually high level. There are dozens of mediocre movies made “for adults” which claim to have all these virtues, but these very basic staples of narrative filmmaking are actually executed so well very, very rarely. I haven’t seen Guadagnino’s first two features (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash), which was a conscious choice: the aggregate peer group I use as a barometer for whether or not I want to see something was very down on them, and the consensus is that he’s majorly stepped up his game here. This is consensus-excellent filmmaking that actually is.
Italy, 1983: teenage Elio (Timothée Chalamet) spends enjoyably sleepy summers while his father (Michael Stuhlbarg) studies antiquity. Every year, there’s a new graduate student along to help with the research, and this year it’s strapping Oliver (Armie Hammer). Elio’s gangly and decidedly European in his manners; Oliver looks like, well, Armie Hammer, and the messy violence he does to a soft-boiled egg when trying to decapitate one indicates his uber-Americanness. Both are Jewish, but for Elio that’s not a major concern or something to be discussed (“my mother says we’re Jews of discretion”): he may be as drawn to Oliver’s unrepentantly displayed Star of David necklace as his other obvious physical charms. A relationship between a teenage boy and a grad student is an issue on a number of obvious levels: the time and place are not conducive to open displays of queer sexuality, there’s the age difference and attendant legal issues.
Formerly Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s regular DP, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom took a detour to shoot Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights films, and is apparently going to keep roaming the globe for a while. Shooting sunny summer Italy is a natural fit for his strengths, all verdant greens and non-smothering sunshine; it looks very much like his previous work. The James Ivory screenplay, adapted from André Aciman’s novel, makes a number of good decisions that don’t overplay any motif: the low-key anxiety of Jewishness isn’t overegged, the transgressive romance’s potential consequences not overstated for purposes of potential tragedy. Not everything has to be symbolic or freighted with plot=point meaning, which is a nice change of pace: the ancient statues Oliver looks at speak to sublimated homoerotics, but, really, they’re just material objects. At 130 minutes, the film has time to let summer sit and take its spell: a romance isn’t really even hinted at until something like an hour in. If the film has a potential fault, it’s that every single person in it acts with uncommon decency — no one ever acts or reacts with anything but the most benevolent and compassionate of motives — but I’m inclined to let the utopian vibes take over. The film is romantic in a very classical sense, and the spell works.
Lately, though, it’s been hard for me to watch anything without immediately foreseeing how its perceived problematics will lead to some scorchingly retributive takes. When Elio and Oliver finally consummate, it’s nighttime and the camera slowly pans up and out the window — a movement entirely in keeping with the film’s classical visual language and overall tone, connecting them to the literally sultry ambience underpinning their extremely extended flirtation. But I immediately thought that someone is going to Call This Scene Out for dequeering the intercourse by denying its graphicness, and it certainly didn’t help anything rhetorically that Guadagnino (who I should probably note self-identifies as “homosexual”) claimed this decision was made in the interests of “universality.” I suspect he had ratings boards more in mind — in any case, the shot is exactly right for the scene, and the film’s terrific.
Anticipating future discourse was definitely on my mind while watching Joseph Kahn’s Bodied, but this is a movie that definitely courts that reaction. Despite two features that got zero commercial traction but which parts of my Twitter feed violently extolled (Torque, Detention), Kahn is probably best known as a music video director. One of his notable collaborators was Eminem, starting with the video for 2002’s “Without Me,” and the rapper (alongside his longtime manager/album-butt-of-jokes Paul Rosenberg) is a producer on this. This is, reductively/essentially, Bulworth refracted through 8 Mile but about social media, in which a young white rapper — here, literature student Adam (Calum Worthy) — mouths off about things he shouldn’t in a milieu he definitely doesn’t belong to. The loose trajectory follows his ascent through the battle-rap world over the course of a definitely too long two hours, but the unlikely-rise arc is really an excuse to dive into a very specific, relentless form of provocation — not quite trolling, though someone will claim that, I’m sure.
There’s a lot going on here, but Kahn — who’s spent a lot of time getting punchy on Twitter — is directing a screenplay (by Alex Larsen) whose basic point is that The Discourse created by social media is just terrible for everybody, least of all for effectuating any kind of actual change. Adam is surrounded by fellow students (all white or Asian) who have long, hollow arguments about whether what they’ve said is problematic, ableist, racist, etc. There’s a lot of sophistry on display, but the film isn’t exactly against the necessary questioning and dismantling of unpacked racisms or structural inequities: Adam’s uneasy status within a milieu that chooses to adopt him for his technical skill never solidifies into a “pass.” In other words, white people are ineradicably complicit and suck, but what’s even worse is a bunch of white people who want to let you know how very, very aware they are. There’s about a billion debates about very specific issues — who gets to speak for whom, whether relentless allusions to guns in battle rap is a self-aware internalization of white caricatures about black people, et al. — and, for the most part, I think the needle’s threaded pretty well. This is a movie with a lot of provocateur energy that’s also, underneath the constant Wait Til You Hear This moments, fundamentally sweet-natured: a climactic battle rap between a black woman and Korean man has them both rapping the most racist tropes against themselves to defuse their potential use by others. Those problematics aren’t innocuous window dressing, but they’re also part of the standard tool kit of a realm they can occupy for money, recognition and basic love of the technical game: there’s solidarity beneath all the aggression. And while this can get pretty heavy-handed (a woman wearing a “The Future Is Female” t-shirt while announcing “trigger warning” in the classroom could come out of a Breitbart commenter’s most lazily researched nightmares), I’m inclined to think that the movie, by and large, has a point about how futile, self-serving and utterly useless much of The Discourse it spends a great amount of energy provoking is, and will be. And so I’ll stop right there.