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Popcorn & Prejudice: A Movie Blog

Seattle Times writer Moira Macdonald muses on moviegoing. Email Moira: mmacdonald@seattletimes.com.

September 14, 2009 at 10:55 AM

At TIFF: A pause, for art and ballet

This is a film festival rich on many levels, including Oscar-buzz movies, world cinema, up-and-coming filmmakers and star sightings (yesterday’s news: Tilda Swinton regally strolling Avenue Road in a long black coat, which must have been all the more striking considering that it was very hot out). But I took some time yesterday to sample a favorite genre: TIFF’s strong documentary lineup. I chose well, with two very different and yet very powerful examples of the genre. Don Argott’s “The Art of the Steal” is a passionate telling of a story the filmmaker clearly feels to be an injustice: the fate of the world-famous art collection amassed by Philadelphia doctor Albert Barnes. Since Barnes’ death in 1951, the collection (including many Renoirs, Cezannes, matisses and PIcassos, and valued at many billions) has travelled a road very different from what Barnes very clearly specified in his will and foundation. As the title indicates, this documentary takes a very definite point of view (and is hampered a bit by the fact that few taking an opposing view would agree to speak to Argott on camera), but it’s told like a crime thriller and is riveting throughout. You leave agreeing with one of the interview subjects: “If you’re going to leave your paintings somewhere, don’t let there be a politician within 500 yards.”
danse_01.jpg
Now nearing 80, master documentarian Frederick Wiseman has long followed his own unique approach to nonfiction filmmaking. In such works as “Titicut Follies,” “Hospital,” “Public Housing” and others, he embeds himself at an institution, collects many dozens of hours of film, and then spends perhaps a year editing the final film — which will contain no interviews, no title cards, no music, and may not necessarily unfold in chronological order. The audience member must discover the theme, through an immersion in a unique place; the point of view therefore becomes both Wiseman’s and ours. In “La Danse,” here at TIFF, that place is the famed Paris Opera Ballet, and Wiseman shows us not only the dancers but the administrators, the costume shop, the janitors, the painters, and the quiet, eerie tunnels below the building. It all adds up to a portrait of an exquisitely ephemeral art, all the more beautiful for its fleeting quality. And it’s filled with unexpected gold, such as when a choreographer tells a dancer, “Jumping is not as important as launching something.” Indeed.
(Photo: “La Danse.” Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival.)

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