Festival Snapshots

The Toronto International Film Festival

On this continent, the most formidable showcase for new films from around the world is the Toronto International Film Festival. I'm headed up to Canada to attend two-thirds of the 10-day-long Festival that ran from September 5-14.

Arriving later than expected due to some lousy airline complications and that curious way in which I always get bounced into the suspicious people's line at customs, I dash in the pouring rain to pick up my credentials before the office shuts down for the day.

The festival headquarters are housed in a new location this year -- the Sheraton Centre -- which is the first sign of some of the changes afoot at this year's festival. Clearly more spacious than the festival's former hotel headquarters, the swank new digs are also further away from the regular theatres and require a cab or subway ride from where I am staying. However, this year the festival has also launched the Rogers Industry Center, a place for producers, sales reps, distributors, and wishful industry types to meet and confab. Two Sheraton theatres have also been set aside for press and industry screenings, which means that the only reason certain people ever leave the building is to attend the endless round of parties.

Credentials now in hand, I decide to dash off and attempt getting rush tickets for a movie that I want to see and is about to start. It's playing at a theatre close to the hotel where I'm staying and since I'm tired and it's still raining (something that the skies continued to do off and on throughout the week), it seems like a good plan. I don't get in, but decide to stay for another movie, about which I know nothing, that's starting in 15 minutes. Bad decision. The movie is painfully bad (there's no reason to name it here; there's very little likelihood it will ever show up in a theatre near you) and I leave one hour into the two-hour-long snoozer. As I turn on the TV back in my room, the beginning of Apocalypse Now pops into view. I'm hooked. And feeling depressed about having walked out of my first movie and ridiculous for having traveled so far only to be watching old movies on broadcast TV. Then I remember... remember seeing Apocalypse the week it opened at New York's magnificent Ziegfeld Theatre, remember the exhilaration of discovery. Call it a sense memory. But suddenly I know what I am searching for in Toronto -- not necessarily the next Apocalypse Now but, rather, that sensation, that feeling of going out into the unknown and coming back with a head full of excitation.

In all, 273 films from 70 countries are screening at this festival, 223 of them features. Choosing what to see is a constant struggle. Generally, I veer toward the smaller, independent works that are still seeking distribution and supporters. Many distributors use Toronto as a launching pad for their upcoming fall product and I tend to pass on a lot of these offerings (much to the chagrin of the festival's bevy of publicists) since I figure that I'll have the opportunity to view them in theatres soon enough. With few exceptions, I'm hunting for movies that I won't be able to find elsewhere -- at least, not in the foreseeable future. Of the three movies voted as the People's Choice favorites: Shine, I had already seen at Sundance (where it also caused a sensation) and is slated to hit theatres this winter, in time for an Oscar bid, Lars Von Trier's much-applauded Breaking the Waves, and Neil Jordan's Irish bio-picture Michael Collins are also due to hit theatres before year's end.

The festival has taken on something of a schizophrenic air this year -- its 21st -- as the division widens between its public mission as a city-wide celebration of cinema and its corporate/industrial role as a major marketplace and meeting ground for those whose business is the movies. With the tremendous increase in the number of theatres devoted to press and industry screenings, the "professionals" (except for certain press waivers) are denied access to the public screenings.

No doubt, this benefits the Toronto moviegoing public, whose access to regularly scheduled screenings is enhanced by the reduced number of publicity flacks and industry toughs bullying their way into screenings. But it also creates a segregated festival in which it's possible that the two participatory camps may never have to commingle. Worse, this doesn't seem to bother too many of the industry folks, who generally seem inured to their sterile viewing conditions. Additionally, all the hoopla goes on at the public screenings. These are where the stars and directors make appearances, introduce their movies, and participate in Q&As. These are where audiences express honest emotions and react without guile, unafraid of dropping their guard or tipping their hand to colleagues.

The citizenry of Toronto are a remarkable moviegoing public who seem to regard this festival as their birthright, often organizing their lives, work, and vacations around its annual occurrence. Knowledgeable and passionate about movies, they are the festival's essential bedrock. While waiting in line for entrance into Jean-Luc Godard's new film For Ever Mozart, I have a long conversation with the Torontonian behind me about the course of the French director's career. My new Toronto companion also handicaps for me this year's slate of Iranian films.

Godard is on hand to introduce his movie and follow it afterwards with a Q&A. As the director takes the stage for his opening remarks, I rise to my feet as the standing ovation swells. Godard says something in French, intended to consternate the English-speakers in the audience, and then hurries off. For Ever Mozart is a film about art and Bosnia, or so my program notes say. Whatever. I really don't comprehend this movie although, as usual with latter-day Godard, there are flashes of meditative insight and great probity. His post-screening comments add little illumination but I'm riveted by this cinema legend nonetheless. When the evening's final question was posed, Godard rejected the query saying, "Let's close with a better question than that." I'm disappointed but, somehow, not.

I can't escape the creeping notion that the old farts just can't cut it anymore. Not just Godard; I've seen the new Antonioni, Beyond the Clouds, and it's wistful and evocative but nothing to write home about; The Ogre, the new Volker Schlöndorff that stars John Malkovich, is a sad near-apologia for Nazi collaboration; and the new Dario Argento, The Stendahl Syndrome, while possessing some of the most wondrously baroque visual work this Italian horror meister has done in years, is so narratively hollow that I feel positively embarrassed to still be in the theatre at the movie's conclusion.

If there's any one dominant theme, it's the amount of first-time movies presented by actors-turned-directors. Tom Hanks is here with That Thing You Do!, Matthew Broderick with Infinity. Others include Kevin Spacey with Albino Alligator, Steve Buscemi with Trees Lounge, Al Pacino with Looking for Richard, Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott with Big Night, Kevin Bacon with Losing Chase, Armin Mueller-Stahl with Conversation With the Beast, and Cher with an episode in Nancy Savoca's If These Walls Could Talk. Two actor-directors are debuting projects with Austin ties: Emilio Estevez's well-reviewed The War at Home and Christopher Guest's wicked small-town satire Waiting for Guffman.

Anjelica Huston, another actor-turned-director, is here with her controversial debut product, Bastard Out of Carolina. The graphically told tale of child abuse, adapted from Dorothy Allison's gripping autobiographical novel, was squeamishly disowned upon completion by its producer, the Turner Entertainment Network. Picked up for broadcast by Showtime, the courageous movie is in a tough place as a result of its tangled pedigree. Completely disturbing, the movie nevertheless softens some of its shocks for the sake of its intended television viewers, yet is shot in too television-y a manner to play well on the big screen. However, Huston's chutzpah and sheer accomplishment are clearly evident. The same night I see Bastard Out of Carolina, I also see one of the hot Canadian films in the festival, Kissed, a story about necrophilia by Lynne Stopkewich, based on the novel by Barbara Gowdy. Though clearly disquieting, I feel the movie barely scratches the surface of the subject's possibilities. Thematically, it's been quite an evening.

Other treats include the film Fire by Canadian director Deepa Mehta, a story about a intra-familial lesbian relationship that grows in reaction to the restrictive, patriarchal nature of traditional Indian society; Living in Oblivion director Tom DiCillo's Box of Moonlight, which stars John Turturro as an anal-retentive soul in crisis; The Delta, Ira Sachs' thoroughly unpredictable movie about growing up gay in Memphis; Steven Soderbergh's hilarious star turn in his twisted new movie Schizopolis (who knew that Soderbergh was one of the great comic actors of our time?); Albert Brooks' first film in a while, Mother, starring himself and Debbie Reynolds in this droll reflection on the mother-son knot; Arturo Ripstein's Mexican take on the Honeymoon Killers saga, Deep Crimson; and Demi Moore, Cher, and Nancy Savoca's production If These Walls Could Talk, a harrowing, three-vignette production about abortion through the decades that can be seen next month on HBO, which, despite its heavy-handed dramatic punch, had me sobbing uncontrollably and willing to overlook its faults in favor of the sheer novelty of seeing these stories on the screen at all.

Noon, Sunday: I'm sitting in the Toronto airport waiting for the plane that will take me back to Austin. I've been in Toronto for a little over a week. I've seen about 35 movies in that time, talked with people about many more movies than that, and read as much as I could on all 273 movies in the festival. I'd be hard-pressed to tell you what I saw the day before, though I know that the memories of the movies themselves are embedded in my long-term consciousness. Short-term memory is shot to hell, a festival casualty of too much running to and fro, always second-guessing your choices and decisions, always wondering if the grass is greener on some other screen, always reconfiguring your personal timetable in congruence with the shifting sea of possibilities. Not even an Olympiad Day-Runner could bring order to this chaos. Long-term memory, however, is secure (as long as I catch up on some sleep in the very near future). I know that I remember it all and the skewed sequencing will settle into place soon enough.

Staring into space, I notice that Roger Ebert has plunked himself down in a chair a couple of aisles away to await his plane. I know it must be time to depart. n

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