By Ray Pride
SEPTEMBER 27, 1999: Like any film festival with more than a couple dozen selections, Toronto is both great and impossible. You surf the zeitgeist. You let chance take you. It's like falling in love overnight: sometimes you don't know how you wound up in that dark room and can't figure out how to escape.
It runs like clockwork. It runs like a train. It will run you down. Over nine days, 256 feature films are on display at the twenty-fourth edition, ticking along in the cool and collected hands of 280 paid staff and 950 volunteers. There are screenings for the public, a separate schedule for 760 foreign press. There is no official market, but films are bought and sold here, in other neighborhoods, at invitation-only screening rooms at film and sound labs.
"I'm so hungry, I forgot I'm hungry," I heard colleagues say more than once. There's a wonderful city there: cosmopolitan, polyglot, modern and almost clean. But you can't dip into much outside the spiffy center of yupscale Yorkville, where most everything transpires. Another fest perplex: Just how many movies a day are fair to your critical faculties, to your responsibility to understand the filmmaker's work, to your gut?
Public screenings are wildly enthusiastic. The Q&As are usually smart and articulate. There are exceptions, including the feared representational fallacy. "Were you concerned showing violence encourages violence?" At once, an end to conversation'and art.
Then there is the gilded world of celebrity and paparazzi. As one of Canada's leading cultural institutions, the festival has gained ever more cachet as a launchpad for movies in North America. Celebrities hurtle across red carpets toward clandestine VIP lounges, streaming from ranks of black Town Cars, each shiny as a new-minted promise. This is yet another festival. Journalists align themselves in packs for or against a film or a colleague. Notes are compared and grudges trotted out. They are vertical orgies. You want to be polite: "Thank you for schmoozing all over me!" The raft of older academics bird-dogging younger women is amusing -- if you're not a woman; that woman.
New filmmakers are justly feted for their work, talking to journalists about art and passion. There are gala, red carpet premieres at the Roy Thomson Hall, an immense modern opera house. Then there are "Special Presentations" -- a section with a not-so-special twenty-eight selections -- films that add a little glitz as second-tier or career-regrouping stars drop into town. (There are stars, but niche ones.) The Canadian press is filled with vipers. The gossip columnists are cutting. They mock the rituals. They mock the cocktail parties. They are fed and then they bite. Their prose lazes through fresh bursts of vitriol. The VIPs cower, out of commoners' sight, if not out of the next day's newsprint.
Only a few days in, you can already tell those who are seeing five or six films (or more) in a day. Puffy faces, dazed expressions, an oleaginous walk like moonmen back on Earth. The dreamy look or the thrilled look is more rare -- undiluted joy from having witnessed a good thing take place in the dark. Three days in, the pop revelation was "Human Traffic," a shared buzz among those who laughed and grinned their way all the way through. Writer-director Justin Kerrigan, 27, is an unlikely Welsh Woody Allen -- while his subject is a gleeful lost weekend among a crew of ecstasy-chomping Cardiff twentysomethings -- the unrelenting zest of the filmmaking made comparisons to "Trainspotting" inevitable. Yet it's more of a piece with another much-beloved, much-quoted mosaic of a movie -- "Human Traffic" is an "Annie Hall" for the next generation. Or, quickly, a Miramax movie for the next season.
The streets and elevators of Yorkville are filled with filmmakers less well-known than stars and left alone. I said hello to a grinning, ever-energetic Harmony Korine a couple days before the first showing of his "julien donkey-boy," eyes clear but his hair and beard looking like they had just been rubbed with a sheet of Snuggle. Celebs need hand-holding, but filmmakers bask in the comfortable atmosphere.
A few watering holes are allowed to stay open later than at other times of year. Cell phones glow in the warm gloom like fireflies on a late summer night. The fest's official watering hole is called Bistro 990. If a real man knows two good bartenders in every city of the world, Alex and Chris are my Toronto samurai. Day or night, almost to a sole, women wear sandals, stiletto hell before the long season of mukluks and snowshoes. So many beautiful faces, I tell a Canadian friend the night before the festival begins. "Wait until tomorrow," she says, "With all the Americans, it'll bring the curve right back down."
Variety's Todd McCarthy figured out the math: With 256 features in nine days, "It would be possible for seven different people to attend four films daily and still see entirely different sets of films." One writer claims to have seen ninety-five films. A colleague notes, "That's a lot of little cat naps."
Notes on a few that will open soon: "Felicia's Journey," sleek with the majesty of things in muted light. Hitchcockian guilt and mother love doused in Atom Egoyan's elegant, stately style. Ang Lee's Civil War intimate epic, "Ride with the Devil," reveals the Taiwan-born filmmaker to be our decade's equivalent of the Hungarian-born Michael Curtiz: always ready to leap nimbly into a new era or style at short notice. Bruno Dumont's Cannes-prize sharer, "Humanity," ("L'humanité") shot with a non-judgmental stare and tranquil pacing, is filled with revulsion, minimalist shrieks of horror at the cruelty of the world. It's exquisite and near-unbearable.
Steven Soderbergh's "The Limey," a wry riff on John Boorman's stylish "Point Blank" where Terence Stamp steps into the force-of-nature shoes of Lee Marvin. (Ed Lachman's deeply burnished cinematography is a love letter to grimy light.) Abbas Kiarostami's rigorous, rewarding journey, "Where the Wind Takes Us." François Ozon's "Les amants criminel" (Criminal Lovers) is a night-black outlaw couple story that turns into Hansel and Gretel, a fine return to form for the still-young, bracingly clever director of "See the Sea." Bill Forsyth's very funny "Gregory's Two Girls" is mature work from a filmmaker whose films are too few and far between. His first film to make it to the screen since 1993's "Being Human," it's a weave of comedic musings rather than a bravura work like his melancholy masterpiece of mood and tone, 1987's "Housekeeping." In "My Best Fiend," Werner Herzog revisits the sites of his epic collaborations with the late, mad actor Klaus Kinski. In Peru, on the location of the great, mad "Aguirre the Wrath of God," Herzog tells his camera, "Every gray hair on my head, I call Kinski." (He shows the same personality as an abusive father in "julien donkey-boy.")
At a screening for Benoît Jacquot's brilliant, icy, oblique family drama "Pas de scandale," (Keep It Quiet) starring Isabelle Huppert, a major arthouse distributor dashed out for coffee halfway in. I asked the person between us, "Does that mean it's a pass?" No, she said, he's just trying to stay awake.
I wonder if he saw Alex Winter's "Fever," with Henry Thomas as a sympathetic hero who may or not be losing his mind as he grows sicker. His life is not a sleepwalking "Crime and Punishment," but it's uncommonly well-crafted entertainment that embellishes on Winter's influences -- mostly Tarkovsky, Dreyer and Mizoguchi. Winter also shows a fine ear for urban murmur and yowl, inventing a grimy Brooklyn with only a green and black palette of Euro-murk.
Sex is on the mind of many movies at festivals. This year was no exception, and journalists were quick to align movies with titles like the challenging, explicit French "Romance"; the Korean "Lies," a stylish tale of mutual and reciprocal self-debasement; the Belgian "A Pornographic Affair" and the Spanish "Between Your Legs." Nice hook for your articles, guys and girls. But check out some of the more mysterious, dreamy, furtive work from the likes of Kiarostami, Korine, Jacquot, Takeshi Kitano, Christopher Doyle. There was scatty grace in Wong Kar-Wai's cinematographer's much-maligned first feature, "Away with Words," perfumed with voluptuous ennui, the camera as drunk as his protagonist, a gay bar owner whose every babble is an ode to beplasterment, the inside of bars and the mind of a corroded liver.
Kitano's "Kikujiro" is a sweetly nutty story of a yakuza softened up by an acquaintance with a young boy. Many critics, wanting more violent-cop material from the Japanese master, dismissed it. They're wrong. A documentary on the making of "Kikujiro," "Jam Session: The Official bootleg of Kikujiro" was a sweet sidebar, showing the unflappable Kitano at work, laughing at himself, the filmmaking process, the wacky story he's constantly rejiggering. There was a delirious Hong Kong cop comedy, "Bullets over Summer," that made my last day at the festival; Jeremy Podeswa's elegant, aromatic "The Five Senses"; and Lynn Ramsay's dour but swimmingly visualized slab of social realism in a Glasgow slum, "Ratcatcher."
More: Alison Maclean's likable, loping adaptation of Denis Johnson's fine story collection, "Jesus' Son." Billy Crudup as "F.H." (for Fuck Head), a 1970s junkie who wide-eye puppy-dogs his way through life and its unceasing troubles. There is need and want, but there is thankfulness for each instant's experience. Maclean's the same way: She's so happy to be directing for the screen again that she can't help but keep showing you things. As in her 1992 debut, "Crush," Maclean composes a limpid, effortless visual style that matches the tossed-off poetry of Johnson's piercing, off-kilter dialogue.
Still more: Tim Roth's "The War Zone" is a refined directorial debut that is redolent of the most intimate horror: incest and its horrible results. The look of the film is epic; the acting is dauntingly visceral, particularly by the non-actors who play teenage siblings, Lara Belmont and Freddie Cunliffe. Veterans Ray Winstone and Tilda Swinton are fine as well. Jim Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai" boasts Robby M'ller's acetylene-lit metropolis, RZA's trip-hoppy score, Forest Whitaker's lumbering, ursine hitman who is both cartoon and embodiment of the samurai creed.
I run into a filmmaker who's out drinking late one night after the premiere of a fine, dark film, but says the next will be darker. "The image will have to be completely black, it's so dark." Then there are the handful of stunners that don't require the fine-tuning of consensus, the honing of buzz. That's the case of Kimberly Peirce's "Boys Don't Cry," an exhilarating, horrific vision of the life. There's the rare film that, from the first few shots, composition, music selections, dialogue, acting, you know you're in good hands, even in an exuberant, monstrous ride like this. Hilary Swank's sweetly butch androgyne is only the center of a totally controlled piece. "Either I'm fucked up," a character says at one point, "Or something's totally weird." It's a sterling portrait of l'amour fou. Perfect love is always doomed: the social order cannot take being excluded. Swank embodies the polymorphous effervescence ascribed to the real life Brandon Teena. Like those around her, you can't tell from scene to scene what sexuality she's oozing, but you're swept away by a singular joie de vivre. She wants to be female, but we also want Brandon to survive. It may be the best murder-in-the-heartland chiller, surpassing even "Badlands" and the feature version of "The Executioner's Song."
But one of the best films, steeped in confusion and a closing half-hour that strains for the transcend and may, shockingly, have attained it, is Harmony Korine's unregenerately experimental, shot-on-video, transferred-to-film "julien donkey-boy: Dogme 6." There is a band of defenders of Korine's first, "Gummo," and most were shocked at what he wrought this time up. "julien" partakes of the consciousness of a troubled schizophrenic (Ewen Bremner), and while Korine tosses off longeurs along the way, the effulgent, smudgy look is that of faded religious icons, and at the end, you know what you have seen but cannot reconcile the depth of emotions it churns up.
But that's only the beginning. That's the start of the story. Three hundred nineteen films total, 171 of them world and North American premieres. Fifty-two countries. Ten days in another town. Seven hundred sixty certified foreign journalists (the number of certifiable may be half that). Thousands of enthusiastic Torontonians. Countless mendacities, epiphanies without number. You can't see everything. You can't write about everything. You can't share all the stories generous storytellers have shared, hangovers are not to be confessed. Sleep is indicated.
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