TIFF 2019: When the theme is the theme

Movies: #TIFF19

Jay Stone discovers that you can go from dance to geriatric sex at the Toronto film festival, with barely time for a refreshing doughnut

By Jay Stone

TORONTO — One of the secrets of formerly professional film criticism (I can now reveal) is to find a common theme around which you can elucidate your theories of the creative imagination. The good news is, if a common theme doesn’t occur to you, you can always make one up because who cares really?

So it was the other day that I saw a 3-D movie about dance and a black-and-white drama about geriatric sex, then attended a lunch party that was so jammed with loud freeloaders that I could barely get to the dessert table for a second doughnut. What do these things have in common?, I asked my daughter, who got me into the party because she knows a guy who knows a guy.

“Three things you don’t like,” she ventured, which is a pretty good guess. But it’s a daughter guess. I actually liked the party, especially after the second doughnut.

As for the movies, Cunningham, a documentary by Alla Kovgan about groundbreaking American choreographer Merce Cunningham — who was still working, at the age of 90, when he died in 2009 — is a fascinating if frustrating examination of an avant-garde artist working in a difficult field. Like modern jazz or abstract art, modern dance stands on its own; not an interpretation of an idea or of the music, Cunningham says in the movie, but a visual experience. “I don’t interpret,” he says. “I present.”

Cunningham is an introduction to his work, feinting at some of the conflicts he had in his creative life — there’s a brief discussion of the way he used female dancers, who are frequently being carried or dragged across the stage — but comprised mostly of beautiful moments of impossible physicality. Watching dancers in a park, for instance, contorting their bodies to the music of John Cage, a frequent collaborator, or seeing a memorable performance of Rainforest, with his troupe in flesh-coloured body suits dancing among neon-filled pillow balloons, is magical. The sculptural fullness of 3-D photography makes it especially rich.

Merce Cunningham’s innovation was to combine the formalism of ballet movement in the legs with the athleticism of modern dance in the torso, and while he was a demanding taskmaster, he created indelible and very influential works. His most loyal audience was the group of young artists, such as Robert Rauchenberg, who saw parallels with what they were doing (Rauchenberg said that what they had in common was their ideas and their poverty.)

The movie was an uplifting treat for the eyes and the mind, and it ended just in time to catch most of Devil Between the Legs, a Mexican movie about an old man who hobbles around on a cane, and his pretty chunky wife who has never quite given up her youthful erotic dreams. He storms around the house accusing her of being a trollop while she keeps notes on his obscene accusations and reads them to a secret tango partner she wants to seduce. She also keeps a sizeable dildo hidden in her closet. Their housekeeper spies on them on the occasions when they have what looks like nursing home version of make-up sex.

Director-screenwriters Arturo Ripstein and Paz Alicia Garcíadiego (Bleak Street) create a contained world of anger, dying passion and memory. The sex is quite graphic and, for those used to the beauty of movie-star bodies, there are scenes of nudity that you will never unsee. It’s a bleakly comic picture of what waits for all of us, I guess. Especially if we don’t stay away from the doughnuts.


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