Sunday, September 14, 2008

TIFF'08 REVIEW: Achilles and the Tortoise - Takeshi Kitano (2008)

Reviewed by Bob Turnbull

What is art? No, wait, don't answer that...There's no way to field that one. Better questions may be: What does art mean to you? How do you view it in your world? For those who actually create it, what is your process of creating art and why do you do it?

Takeshi Kitano has been working his way through questions of that variety for his last three films. The first in the trilogy of self-examination was "Takeshis'", an example of how real life incidents and characters wind their way into Kitano's psyche and dreams to emerge at the other end as an artistic creation. The second, last year's "Glory To The Filmmaker", was a mish mash of film influences and brain dump of thoughts on how artistic ideas come about. This year's "Achilles And The Tortoise" performs a similar role for the painter side of multi-talented Kitano. He explores different influences and techniques that exist within the art world, how artists can begin to incorporate them and what happens when they do that for the wrong reasons.

It's actually a pretty wide swath to cover in a single film and even bigger under the guise of following a single character throughout different stages of his life. As a boy, a young man and a mature adult, this character named Machisu encounters a variety of different opinions, influences and opportunism. He experiences art patronage gone wrong, sellers inflating importance of art work, dealers stating objectively how artwork should be done (to meet commercial desires) and total indifference. Along with all this, Machisu dabbles in different styles via his personal studies of many artists so you would think that he would develop his own style and perspective at some point. But he doesn't and this inability to decide for himself and to keep on the road of trying to please others (in particular a specific buyer) causes him to lose sense of the real world and how to live in it like a human being.

This can make the film a difficult thing to watch if you are hoping to follow the narrative or character arc. Kitano himself plays the adult stage of Machisu and he isn't a pleasant fellow - completely self-absorbed and willing to take advantage of anyone who will give him money so he can buy paint. But that's not the story Kitano is trying to tell...The film opens with a short animated sequence depicting the famous paradox of Achilles and the Tortoise which is essentially (to quote Aristotle):

In a race, the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started, so that the slower must always hold a lead.

Machisu can pursue acceptance and commerce through his art, but he can never catch up. Hence his continued slide downwards for the entire film. Though it may not be "fun" to watch his life crumble, it's the individual bits within it that bring out the discussion of art, the problems with it and the beauty of it. And some humour too.

The film starts with an introduction to Machisu when he is a young school age boy who simply likes to draw and paint. His dreams become set for him when his efforts are encouraged by an older painter that his wealthy father has been funding. Machisu receives the advice to always make sure his artwork captures the details of whatever his subject is. As an older art school student, he hears that you must experiment with your art and "let your soul paint". Both these approaches lead to tragedy for others. His attempts at experimental art are the funniest parts of the film as he tries riding bicycles filled with paint into walls, using jackhammers, baseball bats, toasters and other various methods. It's also sheer desperation to make something important or something that will sell.

But through it all, there's also a love of art. Kitano (as far as I know) painted every single piece of artwork in the film himself - from the childlike drawings to the copycat paintings - and there's some gorgeous colour throughout all of them that really pops off the screen. Actually most of the colour seems to be drained from the rest of the film in order to put even more emphasis on what Kitano feels is most important: the artwork itself. Not whether it is any good or how it was achieved or whether it has sold...Just the creations themselves. Perhaps with this last film in the trilogy Kitano has indeed caught up with his tortoise.

Read more from Bob Turnbull at his blog.

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