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ART FILMS IN TORONTO
by David D’Arcy
 
Art had its place at last month’s 35th Toronto International Film Festival, Sept. 9-19, 2010, starting with the new $129-million, block-long TIFF Bell Lightbox, an ensemble of cinemas and galleries that opened Sept. 12, 2010. It is hosting the Museum of Modern Art’s crowd-pleasing Tim Burton exhibition in late November -- a coup for a city that seeks international attention.

Werner Herzog’s Cave
Among more than 300 features at TIFF, it’s no surprise that Werner Herzog’s stands out -- literally, almost, as it’s a 3D film of the 30,000-year-old cave drawings discovered near the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc in the Ardeche region of southern France. Called Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Herzog’s 95-minute-long documentary features his own inimitable narration, and is something of a revelation. Till now, only official still photographs of the cave, which was found in 1994, had been made public.

Who were the Chauvet artists, and what are the drawings all about? Who knows! The charcoal images of animals on the undulating cave wall -- horses, mammoths, lions, panthers, bears and even what seem to be rhinos -- blend a remarkable naturalism with a thrilling sense of gestural drama. Many of them are like nothing else (while others suggest the sense of atavism that occupies artists like Susan Rothenberg and James Brown).  

Herzog’s 3D descent into a realm filled with magically sculptural stalactites and stalagmites is about as eloquent an argument for the gimmicky form of filmmaking as you’re likely to see. More 3D films are certain to come. Need another reason to see Cave of Forgotten Dreams? It’s the only way you’ll ever be able to enter this unique but fragile archeological monument.

Lynn Hershman’s Feminism  
Has it already been three years since “Wack! Art and the Feminist Revolution” launched a reassessment of the 1970s feminist art movement? That study continues with California artist Lynn Hershman’s orthographically irregular !Women Art Revolution -- A Secret History, her collage-like documentary of 40 years of feminist art.

Once again, the filmmaker provides the voiceover narration, with segments on Janine Antoni, the Guerrilla Girls, Martha Rosler, Carolee Schneemann, Nancy Spero and others (listed here alphabetically, not historically). We see much of Judy Chicago, whose provocative The Dinner Party (now on permanent view at the Brooklyn Museum) was denounced by idiotic politicians. And we hear the story of Ana Mendieta, whose death after falling from a 34th-floor balcony just north of SoHo landed her husband, Carl Andre, in court (he was acquitted) and split the feminist movement into two opposing camps. So much for solidarity. 

Calling the film a “secret history” overstates matters a bit, since the first order of feminist artists was to get themselves included in the male-dominated art world. And though parity has not yet been achieved, the art business now includes plenty of women, many of them post-feminist, or rejecting the feminist label entirely. Though much remains unresolved in Hershman’s film, !Women Art Revolution is to be praised for keeping those questions alive. 

Julian Schnabel in Palestine 
In between screenings, a visitor at TIFF could drop in on the Julian Schnabel survey show at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, which occupied the museum’s fifth floor. “Occupied” may be an indelicate word, since Schnabel’s new film, Miral, which made its North American debut in Toronto, sets its story in the occupied territories of East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

As everyone must know by now, Miral is adapted from a book about an orphanage for Arab girls in East Jerusalem written by Rula Jebreal, the Palestinian-born television personality working in Italy. Jebreal, who wrote the script, has been described as a cross between Orianna Falacci and Christiane Amanpour -- and has been romantically linked to the director as well. The orphanage serves as a lens through which we view half a century of Arab opposition to Israel. Schnabel’s sympathies are with the Palestinians, though he puts it differently: “it’s not pro-Palestinian, it’s about Palestinians.”

Still, you could call Miral a didactic political melodrama, and a radical departure from the delicate story-telling of The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), Schnabel’s previous film. Miral was savaged by the critics at Venice, where it premiered before Toronto. It is scheduled to open in the U.S. on Dec. 3, 2010, with a special event planned for Art Basel Miami Beach.

Japanese Protest Art
A more unusual documentary is filmmaker Linda Hoaglund’s ANPO: Art X War, a survey of art, photographs and films opposing the 1960 renewal of the 1951 U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty (i.e., ANPO), which has allowed the U.S. to have 90 military bases throughout Japan. Here at home, the staggeringly vast spread of U.S. forces around the globe is little discussed.

Hoaglund -- an American who was raised and schooled in Japan -- shows the depth of Japanese opposition to ANPO, by artists and by ordinary citizens. Though too polemical to convince many Americans, ANPO deserves wider distribution here than it’s likely to get.

Yves Memorialized
L’Amour Fou, the Yves St. Laurent post-mortem by Pierre Thoretton, follows the designer’s career from his precocious start at 21 to his recent death and the auction of the collection he assembled with Pierre Berge, his lover and business partner.

This spectacle of youthful talent, success, love and drugs and downfall has plenty of archival images, not to say drama, to keep the fashion crowd watching. 

A Kiefer Monument
What would a film festival be without a monographic portrait of an individual artist? In Toronto, the audience was offered a rare view into the life and work of Anselm Kiefer, a celebration titled Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow and helmed by Sophie Fiennes (sister of Ralph).

The scene is Kiefer’s sprawling studio in the southern French town of Barjac, where the artist transformed an abandoned silk mill into a City of the Dead with all his trademark monumental ashen pall. We see him burning coals and melting metal, and finally leaving his own private scorched landscape of Barjac behind.

In search of a sense of grandeur, the filmmaker resorts to a slow-moving, almost funereal camera, which unfortunately brings to mind documentarian Errol Morris’ sequences of Auschwitz-Birkenau in Mr. Death, his 1999 portrait of a Holocaust denier who designs humane electric chairs.

Fiennes has succeeded in making a film about Kiefer in Kiefer’s style. Kiefer fans will welcome a chance to see him work. The rest of us may be restless with the reverent artist-worship.


DAVID D’ARCY is a correspondent for the Art Newspaper, a contributing editor at Art & Auction and a regular critic on the "Front Row" program on BBC Radio.