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Fall films from the Toronto Film Festival

By Ray Pride

OCTOBER 5, 1998:  I'm starting to remember.

It's a good discombobulation, immersing yourself in a film festival, losing track of time, the days of the week, taking on the rhythms of a foreign city, even if only the clean-scrubbed, genially multiethnic streets of Toronto with everyone's schedules and agendas cascading against your own. But after ten days, you wonder if the notes will make sense. You wonder if the sheaf of business cards will make sense. You wonder if you will make sense.

At the right festival, on the right day, you will run only into those who genuinely love movies: critics, filmmakers, bookers, buffs. Hoarse, you shout louder. Even as specialized exhibition dies an uncelebrated death around the globe, and subtitled movies seldom make any waves on these shores, there are more than 350 of these events worldwide, almost as many as there are days in the year. Their schedules overlap madly. Work of the greats and the never-should-be-seen have their film cans clang together in customs, awaiting the bureaucratic imprimatur of another country's border guardians. Press screenings are canceled and schedules are shuffled. Hour to hour, with 243 features to select from in both public and press performances, all plans are tentative.

Time splinters, often literally. After watching "Donald Cammell: The Ultimate Performance," a documentary portrait of the ill-fated polymath who made only three other features after co-directing (with Nicolas Roeg) the time-and-genre shattering "Performance," I met a 29-year-old director from New Zealand, there with a punchy Martin Donovan-starring thriller called "Heaven." As with his first feature, "The Ugly," Reynolds exhibits a post- "Pulp Fiction" knack for fracturing time. He explained that he grew up in his family's movie house, projecting movies, repeatedly watching reels out of sequence, often constructing the narrative from shards or out of sequence. This is how his mind works now.

Thematic anarchy of a similar stripe rages in your head when you watch the lush, distilled beauty of Hou Hsiao-hsien's "Flowers of Shanghai," followed quickly by Peter Berg's manic, moralizing "Very Bad Things," a very black comedy that threatens to crush its viewers as it crushes its characters. "Someone said it seemed like we were sending cocaine through the vents during the screening," Berg said. "That's a great compliment."

They call it a festival, a place to come to celebrate, even worship, or for some, maybe just to glom the credentials to get into a Tom Cruise press conference. Publicists join you at the open bar, peering toward the liquor, asking what you've seen, what you're going to see of theirs. Journalists you know are also looking for pointers toward their burgeoning thematic analysis: "The Family Sucks"; "Martin Donovan: God or Just Omnipresent?"; and this year's winner, hands down, "Cruelty, Eh?"

Things explode, especially among families: The Danish "Celebration," by Thomas Vinterberg, draws from the smart calculation of Lars von Trier's circle of pals, etching the end of decades of repression and incest at a paterfamilias' sixtieth birthday, much like Todd Solondz's already-notorious "Happiness," which takes a tender-yet-sorrowful look at the failure of its extended family to find any of the title quality at all. While John Waters' "Pecker" posits a personal utopia of a meeting of the New York art world and Baltimore rough trade, Goran Paskaljevic's "Powder Keg" circles around the streets of Belgrade in one long, dark, night, filling the screen with a masterful mix of sentimentality, rage, nihilism and finally tenderness. Killing, killers and deadly habits litter many of the other pictures: the obtusely dark French sex-killer experimental feature, "Sombre"; the rivetingly dark French mind-of-a-serial-killer story, "Seul Contre Tous"; the Los Angeles-paramedics-on-smack thriller, "Broken Vessels." Then there are those films that seek peace in death: Hirokazu Kore-Eda's magisterial, assured follow-up to "Mabirosi," Don McKellar's "Last Night," the camera wandering through the streets of a desiccated Toronto on the night the world will end, picking up characters yet steadily paced toward midnight.

You want to escape into something more life-affirming: Wes Anderson's quirky prep-school comedy "Rushmore," a fresh, assured comedy about a teenaged, Clinton-like overachiever (in just about every fashion) that obliterates the memory of his tepid "Bottle Rocket." Or perhaps the exuberant Vittorio Storaro-shot dance sequences of Carlos Saura's "Tango" or the hush and murmur of Michael Almereyda's tranquil latterday mummy tale, "Trance," aided immeasurably by an acute Simon Fisher Turner score.

You can choose from evil unrelenting, as in Bryan Singer's compelling, awkward "Apt Pupil," wherein a high school boy nurtures his inner Nazi with the help of an escaped war criminal; or to the genuinely life-affirming, Erick Zonca's "Dream Life of Angels," a story that starts as if another close-in look at confused teenage girls, and culminates as a rich, almost mystical story of how some of us grow and others do not.

The great Italian directors, Vittorio and Paolo Taviani, into their sixties, were on hand with their beautifully mounted pair of Pirandello adaptations, "You Laughed." Was there a difference between a young man's cinema and an old man's cinema, I ask? The cinema, Paolo says, saying the word in Italian, the "chee-NAH-mah" will never die. There are always several films each year that will make you realize that. But cinema changes, just as we all must change, and we must realize that the qualities of new movies will not be the same as those of the old movies that caused us to love films. There's at least one movie like that each year, always, Vittorio says. Paolo's hands gesture wildly. Many more, he insists. But all it takes is one. We smiled.

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