Toronto: Documentarian, reel thyself

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After a week of mostly perfect weather, rain came to Toronto today, affecting everybody's mood and getting in the way of the movies. I was already thinking about how documentary filmmakers occasionally interrupt their own flow with a bit of personal rain—not always a bad thing, but some do it better than others. After an early festival screening of Armadillo (a too-timid Danish war piece shot in Afghanistan, with less-than-flattering similarities to Restrepo ), I found myself listening more closely for the voice of the documentarian. Sometimes it's a voice I love—like the Teutonic tones of immortal bad boy Werner Herzog. I could listen to the man read a stack of annual reports and it would be damn near gripping. That's Herzog pictured above, on the left, posing with a dude in a prehistoric-fashioned pelt for the 3-D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams. But actually, what I mean about voice goes deeper than merely literal. Watching Herzog's latest—about a discovery of cave paintings 30,000 years old (the oldest human art known to exist)—I couldn't help but think that this felt a little dry from the bold artist behind Grizzly Man. Occasionally, Herzog will stop an interviewee dead in his tracks with a question that gets the audience smiling ("Do cavemen dream?"), or offer up a poetic insight, such as the idea that these paintings of herds of animals are the "awakening of the modern human soul." But truthfully, the movie plays like something you'd suffer through in science class. It's okay, but not nearly "voicey" enough for him. Errol Morris, meanwhile, is having the opposite problem. Tabloid, his latest, returns Morris to the trashy, off-kilter Americana that worked so well for him early in his career (Gates of Heaven, Vernon, Florida). Without spoiling too much, the doc focuses on a former Miss Wyoming, Joyce McKinney, who, in the late '70s, caused a stir involving abduction, bondage and Mormonism. (Later in life, she also made an effort to clone her puppies.) Such material should make for another Morris home run, and he yanks a head-slapper of an interview out of McKinney. But Morris also inserts his own judgment far too often, either with his off-screen chuckling—since when has the inventor of the Interrotron done that?—or via unnecessary, elitist hobnobbing with other interviewees. The wildness of the story speaks for itself; for the first time, I felt Morris was mocking. Maybe Spain's Jos Luis Guern was the only one to get the balance just right. Guest is a b&w video diary he kept while traveling the world with his 2007 festival-favorite, In the City of Silvia. Far from a catty, crudit-scarfing backstage account of snoberati lifestyles, Guern instead took to the streets—of Jerusalem, Havana, NYC, many more—to speak with the disadvantaged, the striking workers, the aged, little children, strangers. The documentary generates incredible verve and a social power that lifts the filmmaker's generosity into the realm of commentary. And, if it need be said, it's ten times better than the ultra-pretentious In the City of Sylvia.

RECOMMENDED: Full coverage of the Toronto Film Festival


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