What I Saw At The Toronto International Film Festival

by Michelle Dean

For the Canucks in the house

1. At the Toronto International Film Festival the other night, the woman directly in front of me in the rush line said she was an aspiring filmmaker. She was wearing a striped button up shirt, pleated khakis, and a blue nylon shell. She carried a thermos. If I had to guess her age, I would probably end up somewhere around 65. She wanted a free ticket, she told the volunteer wrangler. To anything. The wrangler, who was at the lower end of middle-age and clearly relished the authority she’d been temporarily granted, fiddled constantly with her headset to signal her importance as she listened to this.

“You have to pay for rush tickets,” she said, all business. “They aren’t free.”

“I know,” said the aspiring filmmaker. “But people come to the rush line to sell their tickets, sometimes, don’t they?”

“Yes,” replied the wrangler. “But ma’am, people generally want money for them. Usually they don’t give them away.”

“Still,” said the aspiring filmmaker, adopting a tone I can only describe as aunt-like, “Sometimes they do! I’ve gotten one before this way. Please let me wait.”

When the wrangler still looked dubious, the filmmaker added, “Please. I need to see some movies. I want to make them, but I can’t afford to see them. I haven’t even money enough for a camera.”

About a half hour later someone came by with tickets to a movie called Precious Life. No one was waiting for that movie, and so the aspiring filmmaker got her free ticket, and off she went.

I’ve been wondering ever since what kind of movies she wants to make.

2. It’s a strange thing how habits get started. I’ve only been going to film festivals of any kind since 2005. My first screening was at Lincoln Center, and it was of a little film called Goodnight and Good Luck, directed by a guy named George Clooney. It goes to show you just what kind of innocent I was that I showed up in what a friend calls my summer “uniform”: jean skirt, black t-shirt, black flip-flops, a canvas black messenger bag. On emerging from the subway, I discovered to my horror that you had to walk the red carpet to get in. And I did it-the photographers ignored me and the few other peons who also couldn’t find the alternate entrance-and took my seat three rows in front of Donna Karan and about twelve in front of Teri Hatcher (then at the height of her “Desperate Housewives”-related fame, so forgive me for recognizing her) and thought: “Oh God, I am never doing this again.” But then Clooney himself came out, dripping charm in a way I’d never seen anyone do before or since.

Since then I’d estimate I’ve gone to about fifty screenings at various festivals. Since Monday, I’ve been to four at this year’s iteration of the Toronto festival: Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, Errol Morris’ Tabloid, John Cameron Mitchell’s Rabbit Hole and Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams. That list, although it mostly describes those movies I was able to get tickets to as opposed to all the ones I’d have liked to see-suggests that my film-nerd street cred is very questionable. I tend to like mid-list, largely American, or American-directed, work. My aesthetic, I suppose someone might say, isn’t overly sophisticated, more directed at heart than head.

3. I am not a squeamish person, but for the last thirty minutes of 127 Hours I kept having to close my eyes because a dull knife sawing through flesh apparently tests my limits. The performance anchoring the film is surprisingly good, largely because the script gives James Franco so many things to do physically that he has little time to get fidgety. The rest I am not crazy about, pretty though it is, mostly because Boyle’s aesthetic occasionally errs on the side of MTV literalness, which is basically what happens throughout 127 Hours. Shots of girls turning their heads, flashing white teeth shiny hair, and wide-open eyes, mascara running down their faces: these are Boyle’s shorthands for deep love.

During the Q&A;, Boyle was asked about the editing of the film, which is indeed stunning work, as the movie probably the most masterfully put together of any I saw this week. “I like to say I am very Tigger-like,” he answers. “And editors, they’re more… Eeyore-like.” I laughed like someone who knew what he meant. Maybe editors are all the same, no matter the medium.

4. At the Rabbit Hole screening I got my only real celebrity sighting. (Unless you count a brief glimpse of Don McKellar, which most non-Canadians wouldn’t.) Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart showed up for the Q&A.; The murmurs in the press suggest Kidman will be up for an Oscar for her performance in this film. I think this prediction is probably apt; Rabbit Hole is the kind of movie the Academy loves, an elegy for a marriage in trouble after the death of the couple’s four-year-old. It’s adapted from the stage play by the playwright David Lindsay-Abaire. It’s a deeply felt movie, which should surprise no one who, like me, loves Mitchell’s other work (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Shortbus). It’s also missing a little something I can’t quite describe, and has a clinical safeness that is also reflected in Kidman’s own performance. I have theories but few facts about the reason for that, so I’ll be delicate: let’s just say she just doesn’t get around to using the full range of expression she could have.

Someone in the audience does that thing I hate that people do at Q&As;, uses the question as an opportunity to talk to the question rather than ask a damn question. “I think this is THE MOVIE,” says the questioner, an elderly man I can’t actually locate in the crowd. “I think it will win the Oscar.”

Lindsay-Abaire grabs the microphone. “Thanks, Dad.” The crowd laughs uproariously.

Mitchell took back the floor. “Please don’t jinx us… Dad.” The crowd laughs again, right on cue.

5. Herzog had already left the festival for home by the time I saw Cave of Forgotten Dreams. It was probably for the best.

“This movie is not just a movie,” said the programmer, introducing it, “it is an art event.” Too right, I think, in the end. Though I suppose mine won’t be the dominant opinion, I think the film is too spare, relies too much on pretty photography of the ancient but only recently discovered Chauvet cave paintings in France. I am ashamed to confess that staring at these paintings for two hours does not, without more, do much for me.

There is some narration, but it is broad and bland, asking big questions like, “What is the human soul?” without the faintest interest in venturing answers. And it only offers only a few of the kind of details that end up following you all the way home. My favorite of these: they found, in the cave, an ancient footprint left there by an eight-year-old boy, and right next to it, the companionable tracks of a wolf. No one, apparently, has been able to figure out if they were left there at the same time.

6. At the end of Tabloid, Errol Morris comes up front for a Q&A.; The documentary itself is wonderful, a crowd-pleaser about a woman named Joyce McKinney. McKinney once made a name for herself in the tabloids by allegedly kidnapping her Mormon ex-boyfriend while he was traveling in the UK and chaining him to a bed, as the tabloids delightfully described, “spread-eagled.” This was all, in her view, a well-intentioned effort to rescue him from the church. The movie allows her to describe this for herself, and she does a bang-up job, I have to say. (There’s also a twist at the end I’ll resist spoiling.)

“This movie,” Morris says in his prefatory remarks, “has probably convinced me, once and for all, that love only requires the participation of one person.”

7. Potentially related: I generally go to film festivals alone. While I’m always happy to take people with me, I don’t condition my attendance on theirs. It often surprises others when I tell them that. I guess I’d rather see the movie alone than not see it at all. A lot of people see these things as social time, I guess, but I don’t get it. I’m there to watch a movie, I don’t need to chat. And as for people pitying me for being there alone, well, I long ago abandoned the idea that I would always be able to maintain my dignity in the face of my obsessions.

This also seems true of my fellow filmgoers at these screenings, few of whom are film students, as far as I can tell. Most are middle-aged yuppies. It takes money to have a hobby like this. The air, though, is not as self-congratulatory as you’d that might imply. I try not to over-rationalize to myself, but I often wonder if the enjoyment I derive from attending film festivals isn’t a kind of contact high from feeling, however briefly and peripherally, like I’ve become part of the production process by seeing it before other people.

I suspect this is not a healthy feeling. But I’m almost certainly going back next year.

Michelle Dean has written for Bitch and The American Prospect. She blogs at The Pursuit of Harpyness.

Photo by Josh Jensen, from Flickr.