279 Movies and 2 Funerals
Toronto International Film Festival Report
By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 19, 1997
One of the biggest and busiest film events in the world is the Toronto International Film Festival. Some 279 films screened during the 22nd annual festival, held between September 4-13. Along with these movies comes a huge influx of filmmakers and stars, publicity agents and marketing mavens, acquisitions executives and programmers, journalists, celebutantes, volunteer festival workers, and party animals. Also attending the movies in large numbers are the citizens of Toronto, who constitute an avid and receptive audience, large numbers of whom are known to ditch work during the festival week and partake of the movie marathon at their doorstep. In my mind, the 1997 festival will also be bracketed by the two televised funerals that became my background companions during the wee hours of each Saturday morning as I packed my suitcase, first for departure and then return. Watching the impromptu pomp and ceremony of Princess Diana's funeral stirred my curiosity about heading toward Canada and witnessing the cultural phenomenon from the Commonwealth's perspective. I mean, Toronto's a city where there's even a movie house called the Princess of Wales Theatre. (I must admit, however, that by the end of the week, the only thing I've taken away from the whole tragedy is the reminder to always wear a seatbelt -- the only crash survivor being the seatbelted bodyguard in the front passenger seat, aka the "death seat.") One week later, almost to the hour, as Mother Teresa's funeral cortege wound its way through the streets of Calcutta, it was poetically clear that the time had come to pack my things and head home. In between these two burials were 279 films. I saw about two dozen of them.
The beauty and the curse of film festivals is in the choices. You're constantly making decisions about what to see and what not to see. You always hope that you chose well; you always fear that you didn't. Arriving a few days into the festival, several de facto choices had already been made for me. Most films receive two public screenings and one press/industry screening. Several films had already (or nearly) reached the end of their screening cycle by the time I arrived, and were thus automatically eliminated from my dance card. Some films that fell into this category were The Sweet Hereafter, the festival opener (and Cannes Grand Prize winner) which was directed by Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan (Exotica) and adapted from the novel by Russell Banks; actor Gary Oldman's dark and gritty directing debut Nil by Mouth, and Spike Lee's HBO-financed documentary about the fatal Birmingham church bombing in 1963, 4 Little Girls. Still, there's consolation in knowing that there will be future opportunities to see these films as they all have distribution agreements in place. The first two will find their way to Austin near year's end or in early 1998; 4 Little Girls is booked for a special local screening next month as part of Paul Stekler's Texas Documentary Tour.
Much of what screens in Toronto, in fact, already has American distribution deals. Many studios use the festival as a high-profile launching pad for their upcoming fall product, mixing the mutual dependencies of visiting celebrities and creative talent with the captive international media trolls. Some of the Gala screenings included such imminent studio releases as this month's In & Out, L.A. Confidential, The Assignment, and The Edge; and later fall movies like the Ethan Hawke/Uma Thurman sci-fi thriller Gattaca; the Seventies porn industry saga, Boogie Nights, that stars Mark Wahlberg and a13-inch prosthetic; Brad Pitt's historical epic Seven Years in Tibet; and the Henry James adaptation starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Washington Square.
The same holds true for much of the lower-budget indie stuff: Many of these entries are already on fall theatrical calendars. Movies such as the notorious Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist; the Parker-Posey-as-Jackie-Oh dysfunctional family psychodrama, The House of Yes; yet another family-gathering-gone-askew film, The Myth of Fingerprints; and the breathtaking new Errol Morris documentary Fast, Cheap & Out of Control all fell into this category. (In fact, these four films were all picked up for distribution after screenings in January at Sundance.) I'm curious about them all, but am determined to focus on seeing movies that have yet to find distribution or ones that do but whose path to Austin will take the slower back routes.
Yet, somehow, the best-laid plans are always doomed to failure. The first movie I rush off to see is something that's due to open up here next month -- Jim Jarmusch's ode to the music of Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Year of the Horse. Being a big fan of both the filmmaker and the band, the movie does not disappoint. It combines concert footage with reflections and is shot mostly on 8mm, a fitting visual complement to the raw energy of the music. I find all sorts of resonances within my own life as the musicians talk about the effects of time and the evolving payoffs that come from working in concert with others, and I reflect on my 16-year-long involvement with the Austin Chronicle, which recently celebrated its Sweet 16. It was a great way to start the festival. In fact, in much the same way that my festival experience is bracketed by the two funerals, my first and last screenings were my favorites of the fest. During my last morning in town I saw Emir Kusturica's 1995 Cannes top prize winner, Underground, a movie that subsequently languished without distribution. A wonderful, comic epic about the disintegration of the filmmaker's homeland of Yugoslavia, the movie has been trimmed down to 167 minutes and now has a deal that will hopefully place it in arthouses here and there. If there's any justice, Underground should rise to the surface.
Trendwise, there's perhaps a new multilingualism taking hold in the world of film. At least four movies I saw contain dialogue that fluctuates back and forth between two or more languages. American filmmaker John Sayles' Men With Guns is a political allegory that's brashly written almost entirely in Spanish. It takes place in an unnamed South American country and was shot in Mexico. Wayne Wang's slight romantic drama, Chinese Box, is set against a portrait of contemporary Hong Kong on the verge of political transition. The dialogue slips back and forth between English and Chinese as characters played by Jeremy Irons, Gong Li, and Ruben Blades confront the changeover with distinctive patois. Welcome to Sarajevo focuses on war correspondents during the city's recent siege and presents a polyglot of national tongues that befits the nature of the turmoil in that region. (It is scheduled to play Austin during the upcoming Austin Heart of Film Festival.) Director Sally Potter stars in her own movie, The Tango Lesson, a self-absorbed meditation on work and love that transpires in English, Spanish, and French. In all cases, the multiple language usage is appropriate to the material and settings, and provides a more plausible sense of realism than the conventional custom that forces everything in a movie to be spoken in one consistent language.
Movies from Asia seemed particularly strong this year. Filmmakers such as Zhang Yimou in Keep Cool and Wong Kar-wai in Happy Together break new ground in their creation of contemporary and offbeat tales that use a variety of new structural techniques for telling their stories. They waft in like fresh winds from the east. Also impressive is cult media figure "Beat" Takeshi's Venice award-winner Fireworks, a stylish story about a cop who battles the yakuza and his wife's failing health.
Far too many movies made weak impressions: the Sandra Bernhard vehicle Lover Girl; the new Tim Hunter (River's Edge) teen trauma picture The Maker; and the new Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas) love story One Night Stand among them. Others that left good impressions despite some rough spots were the ultra-low-budget spoof, Orgazmo, about a Morman making bucks as an actor in the porn film industry and directed by Trey Parker, the originator of TV's South Park; and James Toback's smart and funny Two Girls and a Guy, starring an absolutely captivating Robert Downey, Jr.
It is also possible to experience portions of the festival without leaving one's hotel room, as tapes of the numerous press conferences and symposiums are broadcast on local television around the clock, along with on-the-spot reporting and advance film clips. Just settle back and stop fretting about all the hot tickets you were unable to see. A Canadian film, The Hanging Garden, was the sleeper hit of the fest, though my two attempts to see it resulted in failure. But it was quickly picked up for distribution and won the festival's People's Choice award. Tied for runners-up were L.A. Confidential and The Edge. The Hanging Garden also tied with The Sweet Hereafter for the Toronto City award for best Canadian feature. Tied for top place in the critics' poll were Boogie Nights and L.A. Confidential; the runners-up were The Sweet Hereafter and the new David Mamet film, The Spanish Prisoner.
I'm packing for home while looking at all the incredibly unflattering shots of Mother Teresa spread on the funeral bier in that soccer stadium. They capture her beatific face from a hideously low-angle perspective that foregrounds her throat and jowls -- a point of view from which no person, dead or alive, would choose to be photographed. I'm thinking, saint or no saint, this woman needs a better director. I know a place where she might have had the pick of the litter.