I should know better but can't help but get a little excited about these TIFF hopefuls.
Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix in 'The Master.'
So here we are again. Summer is slinking away, and the time for serious cinema is marching resolutely forth, trailing banners of self-worth and prepress. If you need a last hooray of summer silliness, there are still plenty of ridiculous films in the theatres, but this week all eyes turned to Toronto and, behemoth that is, TIFF. Even if you don't follow film festivals obsessively like I do, and haven't read the reports in from Venice, Locarno or Telluride, some news of TIFF has probably snuck into your consciousness.
Day one of the festival kicked off this past Thursday, and the engine is now running at full-tilt boogie. Whether it be breathless coverage on ET, tweets about stars' red carpet arrivals, or the first slew of reviews to come crackling out on the interweb wires, the cinema circus has rolled into Hogtown and there is squealing, swag and press junkets galore. Friends who live in Toronto are bitching that armies of TIFF patrons are wandering the streets of Canada's largest city, and even from a distance of a few thousand miles, it looks nutty. I must admit, however, that a tinge of envy colours me celadon. Certainly there is a whole lot of hype around a giant festival like Toronto, but in amongst the media storm, there are a lot of films that I am waiting to see. Here are just a smidge...
P.T. Anderson's take on L. Ron Hubbard, The Master, was filmed largely in 65mm, and the power and beauty of celluloid -- crisp and clean and filled with glorious colour and texture -- is well evidenced even in the trailer. This is reason enough to want to see the film, but the early reviews have been exceptionally strong. Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the progenitor of Scientology (or a thinly veiled version thereof) and Joaquin Phoenix his troubled disciple. Watching the trailer for the film, the tone of it reminds me of a Douglas Sirk film, oddly enough, perhaps it's the richness of tone and colour, but, it's also the era itself. The Master takes place just after the end of WWII, in the same year (1952) that L. Ron himself founded his religion. So too, the classic Sirkian women's films were also set in this same period. I can't watch a film like All That Heaven Allows (1955) without getting seriously creeped out, and here, too, there is that same unsettling 1950s vibe, a time when much of human nature was shoved underground to writhe and ferment into the explosive riot of the 1960s.
'Free Angela and All Political Prisoners'
Which brings us to another film set in the weird old USA. Free Angela and All Political Prisoners explores the life and times of activist, Communist, Black Panther, and all-round righteous babe Angela Davis. Watching the film's trailer, I was reminded of a conversation I had recently with my son Louis about Richard Nixon, who figures prominently in the trailer, and who labelled Davis a terrorist. To Louis, Nixon is only a character on Futurama, a head in a jar who does various nefarious things. It took him somewhat by surprise when I told him that Nixon was in a fact a real person. "Did he really look like that?" was Lou's (quite reasonable) question. The answer, in terms of American history, is that you can't make that shit up. The same is true of Angela Davis's life story; it has the makings of an American epic.
'Stories We Tell'
The curious intersection of life and art are also examined in Sarah Polley's new documentary Stories We Tell. The film's mixture of nonfiction and fictional retellings might forestall the label of true documentary, but really such delineations are of little use in family stories. After all, the family lore that we tell ourselves and each other becomes far more real and resonant than the bare facts could be ever be.
'Pervert's Guide to Ideology'
Notions of truth, fiction, fantasy also come to a glorious head in Sophie Fiennes's The Pervert's Guide to Ideology. The head in question is that of Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek. A sequel to Fiennes's 2006 film The Pervert's Guide to Cinema in which Zizek articulated his thoughts and theories from inside the scenes of famous films such as The Birds and Blue Velvet, in Ideology, Mr. Zizek romps through films as varied as Jaws, and The Sound of Music. If this second edition of The Pervert's Guide is as much fun as the first film, then there is much to look forward to.
'The Secret Disco Revolution'
Another interesting looking documentary playing at TIFF is Jamie Kastner's The Secret Disco Revolution. Disco, and its adherents and detractors, has been examined before in film, but how can you turn down a film that has Michael Musto, Donna Summer and the Village People. It's simply not possible, submit and let Disco have its way with you.
For those of you remember the documentary Sweetgrass, a film about a sheep drive in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana so long and winding, that it felt as if the audience too had made the 300 mile trek alongside hundreds of sheep and shepherds bleating into their cell phones, Leviathan threatens to be another equally immersive journey. Co-directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel and their very many digital cameras capture life and death in a commercial fishery off the coast of Massachusetts. Even the barest glimpse of this here is enough to make my hair stand on end.
And thinking of things aquatic, I literally cannot wait for this film to wash up on shore. It's been a while since there's been a proper biological horror film set in a seaside town and Barry Levinson's parasitic slice of life, The Bay looks to fill that void with blood and guts.
If you're too cheap, or busy, or whatever to go to Toronto and line up in a frenzied heap with all the other cinema-goers, a fair number of these films will show up later this month at VIFF, and then later on in wide release in commercial cinemas. You won't have to wait long, and in some cases you won't have to wait at all. Not so long ago, there was a prescribed order to how films were presented. Festivals premiered them, films arrived in mainstream theatres, and then, after a decorous period of time, they were released on DVD. That was long ago and far away. Things are different these days. The arrival of VOD (video on demand) means that films launch simultaneously in theatres and online, and occasionally, films are available online long before they hit theatres. I'm not quite sure how I feel about this yet. The idea that you download The Bay, for example, from iTunes on the same day that it is released in theatres makes me wonder whether I will just stay home and watch it on my computer in my bathrobe instead of venturing out to the actual theatre. (Never underestimate the appeal of not having to put clothes on, in order to see a film.)
If there is one thing that becomes explicit when watching the TIFF hubbub from afar, it's how much the engines of desire and anticipation must be gunned in order to achieve full pay out. The media coverage alone of the Toronto Festival feels like an air attack occasionally, a bombardment of reportage, on everything from designer clothes to the number of stars in attendance. Whatever the star power of TIFF, for ordinary folk, it requires a level of commitment and work to attend a festival of this size, and the complaint has long been that it's impossible to get tickets if you're some little wiener from Scarborough. While the organizers of the festival maintain that there is still a level of accessibility for the common folk, is the idea of the bragging rights that come from seeing a film before everyone else enough any more? Is waiting for VOD, especially as the margins between when a film premieres and when it is broadly available continue to shrink?
Accessing people's hearts and minds and eyeballs in an age of instant gratification is getting trickier by the day. Anticipation has been the bread and butter of the film industry for a very long time, and increasingly appetites must be stoked furiously. More bread, even more butter! Soak that thing if you have to. Watching the TIFF trailers, I am reminded of how even these early glimpses of a film are themselves a culmination of long-term media campaigns, and, in some instances are treated like events with countdowns to release, featurettes, and world premiere status.
The thrill of anticipation, that Christmas morning feeling, all those wrapped up, gaudy parcels under the tree. It doesn't matter how many times you tear off the paper and find a pair of socks, the lingering hope that this time it will be different never wavers. I fall for it every time, even though I should know better, there is always some six-year old version of yourself in your brain that harbours some hope, that most pernicious and persistent of emotions. This past year, there have been several occasions when hype soured into bitterness when the actual film, itself, failed dismally to live up to expectations set by its trailer. I'm looking at you, Prometheus.
You want to unwrap a new bike under the tree, not a pair of socks. Disappointment may be far more common than exultation, but still the hope persists, this time, this time it really will be a new bike.