Toronto International Film Festival Tour Diary By Joseph Gervasi. The colors I see outside the car window on this sun-drenched late summer day are more vivid and vibrant than any color palette that will be on display in the films I will see in darkened and temperature-modulated theatres over the course of the next ten days...
The colors I see outside the car window on this sun-drenched late summer day are more vivid and vibrant than any color palette that will be on display in the films I will see in darkened and temperature-modulated theatres over the course of the next ten days.
As we jet forward from Wilmington, DE (home of my travel-mates, Travis, Theresa and Jim) towards our destination, the Toronto International Film Festival, we pass the seemingly endless expanses of manicured farmlands, lush clumps of forest land and fields of corn still unaware of the darkness and cold spilling over the edge of the horizon. Above us, for a moment, soars a hawk. I don’t see hawks often in Philly and surely they don’t seek out prey and make nests in downtown Wilmington. And yet: Here it is, soaring, unseen, passing as the car propels us ever-onward where the lives and fantasies of others are presented to us as a substitute for our own art, creativity, movement, life.
Each acre we pass is an experience unfulfilled. Wildflowers wink by at 80 MPH. Berries cluster, unpicked and entangled in the rusted fences that separate theirs from ours. Leave the city and the spectrum of color expands beyond the grey and black into blinding blues and buttercup yellows and blade-sharp greens. Moving from here to there, I want to be in between. What can someone show me in two dimensions, on celluloid, that can begin to compare with what I am seeing with my own eyes, wanting to touch with my own hands?
We move forward. There is loud music. There is the occasional exchange of words competing with the music. I feel the sun on my neck, warm and toasting. A surprise: Erupting from a field, a fresh crop of homes. The fences may change but the land looks the same. I open my window to drown out the sound inside with the rush of wind.
Day 1: Thursday, September 7, 2000
When the Canadian Customs agent asked, “Are you carrying any mace or pepper spray?” I could feel my own canister nuzzling my scrotum in my shorts. “Honest, officer, I’m just happy to see you.” Gruffly, he motions us forward. Armed with my mace, knife and retractable antennae, I moved forward to conquer Toronto. In a city as white as a dove’s feather, I was setting myself up as a perpetrator of that city’s projected single homicide of the year. Leave it to the ugly American.
It was a nine-and-half-hour drive from Wilmington, DE to Toronto. The drive was smoother than any one of us expected. As the rich green landscape rushed by, I felt the weight of some recently (semi-)resolved problems lifting off my shoulders. Gone was a city, Philadelphia, which I could function in but never love. We talked, played music, read, stared at the wide-open spaces that are, to some, just impediments that one must traverse en route to the places that matter, the places the humans have created in their own fetid image.
Coming from the punk rock school of world travel (Greyhound buses, broken-down tour vans, filthy floors, ass-stained couches, the risk of scabies and the sweet promise of fleas), stepping into a twelve-floor Quality Hotel complete with two Queen-sized beds andhorror of horrors! clean fucking towels was a bit of a culture shock. I felt like I was stepping into my parents’ shoes and the next thing I knew I would be sucking in a potbelly and growing my hair longer in order to swoop it over a bald spot.
In my own defense (here is where the Author desperately attemptsto no availto regain his perceived street cred™), I came into this excursion late in the game and was presented with one option: a pre-booked hotel room. Not wanting to miss the opportunity to attend a fantastic festival with three great people, I slipped into my penny loafers, loosened my chinos and shelled out for a shirt with an alligator proudly embroidered on it.
Thursday night was a night without cinema. I had considered seeing Kippur, a film about the Israeli army, but I was informed of some bad notices and needed nourishment and sleep. After hours of walking and endless backtracking, the four of us gathered at Spring Rolls, a superb and fairly-priced Thai restaurant on Yonge Street across from the Uptown Theatre, which would soon become my second home. After a delightful meal, Travis went to his hotel to place a serious phone call while Jim, Theresa, and I walked about a bit, savoring the city before we headed back to our respective rooms to fall into a deep sleep.
Day 2: Friday, September 8, 2000
There is a drill sergeant lurking in my soul. He compels me to behave with discipline and subjects others to my will whether they like it or not. It was the drill sergeant, not me, oh no, who had us up as the egg yolk sun oozed around the edges of the skyscrapers. He barked us out of bed, into showers and on to hours of walking on the streets of Toronto towards the Festival box office to claim our tickets.
We faired well at the box office. Travis and Theresa got all they wanted. Jim missed out on Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and In the Mood for Love (two major losses) but got his thirty-six (!) other selections. I only missed out on Almost Famous, but I could easily catch up with the film when it would hit wide circulation in the early fall.
At some crap bagel place we stopped at we got nothing but bad attitude from the two girls who ruled their domain with frowns, sighs and exasperated looks at those who did not understand their broken English. Here are two people who had been recruited from some grass hut in Southeast Asia (where I have heard they recently discovered something called the wheel) and they are looking down on me as they slop cream cheese on their hundredth bagel of the morning? Fueled by delusions of power, the little queens run their kingdom with tiny iron fists and woe unto those who don’t want their bagel toasted.
The early part of the day was spent in two of the bigger chain bookstores of Canada, Indigo and Chapters, as they carry a good number of UK import books. There was a banner erected proudly across the back of the Indigo bookstore that read, “THE WORLD NEEDS MORE CANADA.” I thought that was akin to saying, “THE WORLD NEEDS MORE WHITE BREAD.”
I met up with my friend Debby in the afternoon. I had only ever written to and e-mailed her before, so it was great to finally meet her in the flesh and spend some time with her.
After a nice afternoon with Debby, I met Jim and Theresa for Benoît Jacquot’s Sade, a bio-pic about the Marquis de Sade. The film focuses not so much on his sexual exploits-as one may imagine-but rather on his iconoclastic thinking and how it got him sentenced to a kind of “retreat” for aristocrats, atheists, and other individuals. All of these folks were on the outs (and the short list for execution) with the current regime running France. Daniel Auteuil plays Sade with intelligence and quiet intensity. Instead of merely making him into a raving sex fiend, Sade is shown to be a true freethinker. He is a threat to leaders who claimed to speak for “the people” while rushing to execute all those who act as either reminders of the past or threats to their regime’s prescribed way of thinking. Only towards the climax of the film, when Sade orchestrates the deflowering (at the hands of a gardener) of a teenage girl he loves (yet will not himself violate), do his sexual “perversions” come to the foreground. Here one sees the man behind the literature that coined the term “sadism” and whose work has lived on long past his mortal body.
With a little gap between films, Jim, Theresa and I enjoyed a meal at the very funky Good Life Café. The Good Life is one of those nutty, esoteric eating establishments that dot North America but are sadly too few and far between. We were served by a middle-aged woman in a mini-skirt with blinding red hair. The walls were dotted with the trash some people call “art.” The menu was composed of weird mish-mash meals that Theresa likened to dinners one would assemble at home if one were cleaning out the kitchen. Her meal consisted of a piece of chicken in “raspberry sauce” (read: Smucker’s jelly), some corn in chili sauce or some shit and pasta in alfredo sauce. Whaaat? We ate to the crap hits of the ’80s (no, this garbage was not good the first time around, and now that it has acquired the veneer of kitsch it is no better) and left the waitress a good tip: Age makes a fool of all of us in the end.
Theresa and I had to scurry over to the Varsity to see Hong Sangsoo’s Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors. I entered the theatre hoping to see a throw-back to the Nikkatsu pinku-eiga films, but instead got a snoozer about a girl and a guy and...and...and...talk, talk, blah, blah. There was a lot of talk and little of the virgin being stripped bare. To make matters worse, an alarm had been sounded in an adjacent theatre, so every three minutes a nasally Canadian voice came over the intercom telling us that the alarm had been sounded and the proper authorities had been notified. Over and over this message went until it became almost a running joke but for the fact that the joke wasn’t funny because I was trying to sleep while the film plodded along. Meanwhile, the aforementioned virgin kept herself from being stripped bare. Way to go, girl!
My patience at an end, the virgin donning extra over-sized sweatshirts to be as far away from bare as possible, I slipped out the back, Jack, and busted a move for the hotel.
Day 3: Saturday, September 9, 2000
Since I didn’t get a ticket for Almost Famous, I had until 4 P.M. until I needed to be at the Uptown. After a stop at the box office to sort some matters out, Theresa and I explored Chinatown down by Spedina and Dundas streets. I had been to Chinatown briefly before when I went on tour with Atom and His Package, so I knew of at least one nice VCD store that I had to hit. After a few false starts, I found several well stocked VCD stores but only got a couple discs (Kieslowski’s A Short Film About Killing and A Short Film About Love).
After Chinatown it was down to Queen Street, the “hip” shopping street. The record stores were pretty bad, but there was a nice indie bookstore and a great progressive rock store called Black Planet that I had drooled over the year before (and spent too much money at).
Miles later, I collapsed into Ben Hopkins’s The Nine Lives of Tomas Katz, which proved to be a complete waste of my time. The black-and-white film attempted to fuse wacky British comedy with art film pretensions and quasi-mystical science fiction but only produced an overly long and merely sporadically funny or inspired turd. With the exception of a clever silent film homage and a few cute gags, the film came off as far too pleased with itself, and it clearly didn’t earn its smug stance based upon any evident wit or filmmaking skill.
After the tedium of The Nine LivesI was jonesin’ to see George Washington, which I had heard good things about. As Theresa and I entered the theatre lobby, however, I realized that despite the fact that I should have been given a ticket for the show, there was none in with my set. Damnation! I scurried to the rush line, and there I waited for forty-five minutes, only to have two sets of people let in, the last set ending at (but not including) me. Dejected and dead tired, I lurched back to the hotel for a less-than-refreshing half-hour of non-rest before I had to see Brother at the Plaza.
The Brother line was amalgamated with the lines for a few other popular films, so it spiraled out of control down and around the block. I took my place beside Theresa and Travis soon joined us. While in line, we saw the guy behind us extend his arm to block the movement of the man behind him. It seemed that he thought the man was trying to butt in front of him. The barred man protested, saying that he was not trying to get in front of him. The barring guy replied, “I’ve about had it with you. If you say one more bad word about Canadian cinema I’m going to smack you down!” Boy, them’s fightin’ words. Talking shit about Canadian cinema? Perish the thought! How could anyone say a bad word about state-funded cinema that is viewed only within the country (with a few exceptions) because nowhere else in the world does anyone give a flat fuck? It’s like shooting ducklings in a wading pool. We all got a good laugh at Captain Canada’s expense, which I had hoped would prompt him to want to fight me, too. No such luck. Instead, we were permitted to enter the theatre thirty minutes after the film was to start and had another twenty-minute wait until the opening short film (a brilliant mock-silent-era film, Guy Maddin’s The Heart of the World) began.
Takeshi Kitano’s Brother was the typical “Beat” Takeshi Kitano film. “Beat” plays a stoic bad-ass who uses extreme violence when pushed too far (or not pushed at all). Here he is a yakuza member out to find his errant brother in Los Angeles. His brother is involved with some black guys who are at war with a rival gang. Like many contemporary Japanese films (especially those directed by and starring “Beat”), there are gaps of silence broken by short bursts of brutality. “Beat” twitches a bit, blows some brains out, pushes a broken bottle in a brutha’s face then gets killed (but not before he leaves said brutha a tidy sum of money, which inspires the film’s lame final thirty seconds). I couldn’t help but think, as the contrived pathos and obligatory gunfire chug-chug-chugged along, that there was some real high-concept thinking behind this film. Japanese yakuzas + black gangstas = inner-city cash! Lose the Joe Hisaishi soundtrack and replace it with some rap songs and you’ve got yourself a potential semi-hit like the latest lowest common denominator cinematic excretions featuring Jet Li, Jackie Chan, and Chow Yun-Fat. When one knows exactly what to expect, taking the effort to watch it all play out is hardly worth the time expenditure.
I had planned on ending the night with the superb Korean thriller Tell Me Something, but it didn’t start until after midnight and since I own and have watched it on VCD, it wasn’t worth my pathetic attempt at staying awake.
Day 4: Sunday, September 10, 2000
We had to be up and at the Uptown early to catch Tran Anh Hung’s A La Verticle de L’été (The Vertical Ray of Summer), the latest film from the director of Cyclo and The Scent of Green Papaya. We had been warned that this was a slow-moving film, and, indeed, it was. There wasn’t much to the film’s plot, but I enjoyed watching it play itself out. Themes of regret, longing and forgiveness were illustrated through the plights of three sisters in Vietnam. What mattered were the images on display and the sounds (music, birdsong) that accompanied those images. I could lose myself in the blue of a shirt, the orange of a headband, the green of a river. Nature, fruit, the human face...all were given a warm, rich, loving glow. No videotape or DVD can replicate the luminosity of the images on display. Never mind the plot (while valid, it was skeletal), I could spend hours in the world Hung presents to us.
There was hardly time to eat before we had to cue up for Alejandro González Iñárritu Amores Perros (Love’s A Bitch) at the Uptown. Upon reading the reviews for this movie’s Cannes screening, I grew simultaneously fascinated and revolted. Parts of its labyrinthine plot concerned dog fighting, a topic I have strong feelings about.
In Philadelphia, where I live, human garbage train dogs to fight all the time. Pit bulls have earned their reputation as savage creatures because worthless men have broken their minds and corrupted them into hate-machines. People with no skills or talent or souls can seek out some sad and perverted prestige by making their companion into an organic gun, a walking, breathing killing machine.
Amores Perros is structured not unlike Paul Thomas Anderson’s or Robert Altman’s films in that it features a sizable cast of characters, all of whom are connected (by the dogs in their lives) in some way. Each character is well developed and compelling and each story line interconnects with each other in surprising and satisfying ways. From the film’s in-your-face opening to its nearly spiritual denouement, I was transfixed.
My concern, prior to seeing the film and at times during the film, was that the dogs in the movie could have been hurt filming the intense dog fighting scenes that are peppered through it. Considering the film was shot in Mexico, I feared that scenes involving the use of animals wouldn’t be as well monitored as they are here in the U.S.
Despite my discomfort in seeing these unpleasant scenes, I respected the honesty in which they were portrayed and appreciated that the long-term effect of violent programming has on dogs (and, by extension, any humans that stand to encounter them) was depicted. Dog fights are shown as the ugly events that they are, and the human participants are not spared any scrutiny (despite the fact that a character the audience is set-up to feel empathy for is a dog fighter “by necessity”).
For two-and-a-half hours I was riveted to the screen, and afterwards I welcomed the Q&A with the director. Oddly, the issue of the dogs and how they were treated during production was not raised during the all-too-brief session. Fortunately, Travis interviewed the director and brought up this question. It seems the director was shocked that this was an issue at all, since there was the customary “No animals were harmed...” note at the end of the credits (in unsubtitled Spanish). He said that he loves dogs and owns dogs and would never have allowed any harm to come to them during the production of the film. He said that he had to witness dog fights as research for the film and was disgusted by what he saw. Seeing this played out in real life inspired him to make the fights as realistic as possible to drive home their brutality.
My friends who saw Tsui Hark’s Time and Tide were not at all impressed, so I opted out of that and instead spent some “quality time” doing other things.
Next up was Sogo Ishii’s Gojoe, about which I had heard a few mixed thoughts but I still approached it with an eager and open mind since I like so much of Ishii’s older work. Sadly, my hopes for the film were dashed when all I found on display was a juvenile sword fighter romp with abundant computer generated effects. Admittedly, the film was well-shot, featured some glorious costumes and had great sound design, but all this means little to me when the plot is a re-tread of comic book silliness that is no more intellectually stimulating than a factory-farmed Hollywood blockbuster. With a running time of 137 minutes, I knew it was time to vamoose about forty minutes into the film. Since Sogo Ishii and the producer of the film were sitting directly behind me, I felt uncomfortable just getting up and leaving. Still, it was better than having to see me nodding off every minute. If he had made a better movie, I would have stayed to see it. This was just not the case.
Day 5: Monday, September 11, 2000
In order to make the 9:30 A.M. screening of what was arguably the most eagerly-anticipated film of the festival, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon at the Uptown, we had to hurry out the door, inhale bagels and butt in line so we’d have good seats. Despite the tremendous delay, when Crouching finally started it lived up to the considerable hype that surrounded it. Ang Lee has taken the ’90s school of hyper-kinetic wire stunt kung fu/swordplay period fantasies and infused absolutely sumptuous photography, gorgeous sets and jaw-dropping effects that make for a piece of art. The last scene in the film raises it to a nearly mystical, transcendental level that left me feeling giddy. Gauging the audience reaction, I think I was not the only one who felt this way. Crouching is what Gojoe may have wanted to be but doesn’t approach. The film was preceded by David Cronenberg’s short film, Camera, which was amusing the first time around but grew wearisome upon subsequent viewings.
After a few hours of shopping and a visit to the superb Theatre Bookstore off Blood Street, it was over to the Cumberland for Marc Levin and Daphne Pinkerson’s documentary, Soldiers in the Army of God. The film concerned the extremist branch of the anti-abortion movement. One profiled gentleman circumcised himself while in jail because God told him to. If God told him to kill, he said, he would obey God’s will. Profiles were also included of the man who shot down a doctor who performed abortions and a clinic defense worker and of a former “femi-nazi” (his words) who saw the light and now wanted to save all the little babies. I have paid my dues to the ACLU, so I respect their right to speak and I’m impressed that there are people in this country still willing to be jailed or kill for their beliefs. Personally, I find pre- and post-birth babies to be absolutely revolting, especially because they are proto-adults well on their way to becoming one of the corpulent organic androids that contribute nothing to this planet but carbon dioxide and feces. I hope this country never overturns Roe v. Wade. The thought of women having to succumb to the will of these religious fools sickens me.
From the serious to the worthless, the highly-controversial film by Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi, Baise-Moi (Fuck Me), was next up at the Cumberland. The film was co-directed by a porn “star” and a prostitute, both still in their respective businesses. It concerns two women who have been abused by men and take to the road, graphically killing other male “pigs” at will. Before the film, the programmer touted the film as an “important feminist work” and bemoaned the fact that thanks to the Canadian censors it may never been seen in Ontario again. Ontario residents: Kiss you local board of censors! Baise-Moi is an utterly worthless hunk of fetid excrement. Blandly shot on video and blown-up to 35mm and featuring pitiful non-actors, the plot is old and skeletal. A Gun for Jennifer, Thelma and Louise, Ms. .45, and I Spit On Your Grave did this much better. In fact, I would almost find it hard to believe that the filmmakers never saw any of the aforementioned films, but I suppose they were too busy scarfing syphilitic penises for pennies a pop to be bothered to gather any cinema knowledge.
The film attempts to be “shocking” but comes off as a mix of cheesy porn (featuring rather frightful looking women and typically gross men) and sub-Fangoria level “killer, dood” splatter effects. I don’t think the “filmmakers” (if a gaggle of talentless whores with video cameras can truly be bestowed with this title) consider it a feminist film, but feminists like the deluded festival programmer would do well to avoid this laughable footnote like a flaming turd. At about 76 minutes (which is about 77 minutes too long), I could just about laugh this off while shaking my head at what the worthless tarts who constructed the film perceived as being “extreme” material. There are plenty of johns on the streets of France who will give these women work, and those johns should be canonized for saving us all from a follow-up to this execrable cinematic abortion. True feminist films are made by committed and intelligent women with vision and skill, not just orifices they are willing to display and a can of red paint.
There was not much time to remove the detritus of Baise-Moi from my mind before we saw Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Seance at the Cumberland. I thought Kurosawa’s Cure was a fantastically disturbing thriller, so I highly anticipated this, his latest effort. Kurosawa was there to introduce the film. His intelligence and enthusiasm shone through in his introduction, even through the aid of a translator. After he spoke, it was on to another lame Prelude short film and “so cool” Benson and Hedges (yeah, big tobacco is okay after all) ad. The plot concerned a married man and woman bored by lives they perceive as being too sedate and “normal”. The wife claims to have psychic powers and lends her aid in a police search for a kidnapped little girl. Through an uncomfortably convoluted series of events, the kidnapped girl escapes her captor and winds up, by accident, in the home of the couple. The husband sees her presence in their home as divine providence of a sort. If he could hold her until his wife makes a grand prediction of her whereabouts and then place the girl there to be found, they could then ride the wave of fame her successful prediction would bring. No more would their lives be so staid. Unfortunately for the couple, they wind up inadvertently killing the girl, so they are left with the task of making her body disappear while her ghost (a creepily executed creature of suggestion and understatement) haunts them.
Kurosawa presents us with a uniquely Japanese take on the returning spirit. Elaborate CGI effects and violent set pieces are unnecessary. Instead, he creates a mood of dread that envelops the characters and, in turn, the viewers. By not placing the film’s supernatural context in a fantastic and unbelievable world, we can begin to see its disturbing images trickle under the door and into our world. The barely defined girl at the periphery of our vision is the guilt that haunts all of us. The desire to transcend our workaday lives can propel some of us to acts that leave us in a lonely place, wishing the safety of a mundane life were still ours but knowing that that life is long, long gone.
Day 6: Tuesday, September 12, 2000
Bleary-eyed, the four of us gathered for an early morning screening of Catherine Breillat’s Une Vraie Jeune Fille (A Real Fine Young Lady) at the Cumberland. The director, who also excreted the abysmal sex film Romance, was on hand to present this early work of hers, based on her novel, that had been banned in France for twenty-five years.
The plot was utter simplicity: A young girl returns from boarding school to her parents’ small house in the country and explores her budding sexuality. It is because of the film’s simplicity of scope that it works, as it tends to falter when it tries to expand into more ambitious environs. What the film seems to capture perfectly is the self-immersion a teenage girl can enter into as puberty rages and the eyes of men who formerly tussled her hair now take in her recently developed assets with calculating eyes. The girl finds sexual frissons in the most unusual of places, which is how a young person perceives the world when hormones surge and the air takes on a heady, fecund sweetness whose demands must be met.
Soon upon arrival, we see the girl eating dinner with her obese and potentially lecherous father and bitchy mother. The girl drops a utensil to the floor and then reaches beneath the table to retrieve it. Before sitting up at the table, she takes a moment to spread her legs and insert it into her vagina. At other points during the film, she indulges in memories and fantasies that become the film’s strongest points. To adults watching these dreams play out in a movie theatre, these explicit set pieces may seem bizarre or excessive. There must be, however, some level of recognition of the girl’s fantasies on the part of the viewer. No one can remember the awkwardness of his or her own puberty without a shudder of shame, and it is that transitory and painful time that the film deals with. The set pieces are many, and each is charged with a potent amalgamation of eroticism and revulsion. She attempts a seduction in which she sits on a dirt path wetting herself to entice her prospective lover. She fantasizes about him inserting a live worm into her vagina then ripping it up in pieces and leaving it strewn and squirming about her sex. She imagines she walks about on all fours with a few feathers sticking out of her ass crowing, “Cluck, cluck! I’m a chicken, too!” (after the tacit eroticism of a chicken slaughter and plucking is explored in bloody detail). The sexuality on display is graphic yet never extended to masturbatory length or cut to jerk-off rhythms, as would be the case in a straightforward male-oriented porno film. While awkwardly silly and dated at times, the film doesn’t fail to shock, as some taboos still, surprisingly, remain taboos even to those deluded by the misconception that they’ve seen it all.
Despite my reservations about some aspects of the film, Une Vraie Jeune Fille got the day off to a good start.
I managed to catch a repeat showing of David Gordon Green’s George Washington at 1 P.M. at the Cumberland. I was previously pissed to have missed this, so I was happy to score a ticket. George Washington was easily one of my favorite films of the festival. Its story is loose and diaphanous. It gives a glimpse into the lives of a group of young, mostly black, children in the Deep South of America. They live their lives in poverty, but the film does not set out to make firm statements about social conditions, but instead shows the rhythms and lifestyles of its characters, many of whom are portrayed by non-professional actors who brought a good part of their true selves to their roles. While there is an accidental death in the film (the perpetrators of which suffer from no external punishment), it mostly eschews conventional methods of cause-and-effect storytelling to instead bask in the thoughts, feelings and words of the characters and their surroundings. The intimacy into which we are brought with these kids is something rare and to be treasured, as is this superb first feature from the young and talented David Gordon Green.
The rest of the afternoon was spent enjoying the city and the fact that I was far from home. While some would be content to sit and passively view films all day, I was fueled by the thrill of exploration. For hours I fluttered about town, blowing off Asia Argento’s Scarlett Diva despite being an Asia Argento fan of sorts. Later, Travis and Jim would tell me that they were surprised at how well directed the film was. Travis’s crowning moment was when he interviewed Miss Argento and came away with her home phone number. He was honored with the gold star for Stud of the Day.
The last film of the evening, which I would see with Theresa, was Bryan Johnson’s Vulgar which was co-produced by that questionable talent, Kevin Smith. As we entered the theatre we were given soft red clown noses. When, at long last, the theatre was packed with clown-nosed viewers, Kevin Smith was brought center stage to introduce the film. He started off by announcing to the ladies in the audience that this year, unlike previous years, he was married so he wouldn’t be fucking any of them. This was the best introductory line of any of the directors at the festival. He then proceeded to inform us that he has only encouraged two people to write: Ben Affleck (who co-wrote the painfully clichéd Good Will Hunting) and the “genius” who wrote and directed Vulgar, certainly one of the more disposable films of the entire festival. Before we had the opportunity to indulge in the work of this new cinematic genius, we first had to don our clown noses for a photo the director took of all the audience members wearing them. He said it was for his ninety-four-year-old grandmother.
Vulgar was about a down-on-his-luck clown who...oh, who the fuck cares? It is not worth the space in this magazine to devote to a crude, unfunny mess that only a few sad souls will pay any mind to because that “Voice of a Generation” Kevin Smith (who brought us the “really funny,” “biting,” and “meaningful” Dogma) has his name attached to it. Kevin Smith should stick to collecting super-hero comics and Bryan Johnson should stick to acting as Smith’s best boy or grip or whatever.
Did I mention that I walked out of the film fifteen minutes into it? How’s that for Gen-X post-modern irony?
Day 7: Wednesday, September 13, 2000
At long last my viewing and activity schedule afforded me a morning in which I could sleep past 7A.M. We didn’t have to be at the Varsity until 1 P.M. to line up for Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love, another one of the biggies of the festival in the wake of it garnering such rave reviews at Cannes. For me, the film lived up to the hype. While the basic plot was simple enough (a man and a woman in early ’60s Hong Kong fall in love as their respective spouses engage in an affair with each other), its strength lay in its visual style. From the gorgeous period dresses worn by Maggie Cheung to the rich colors of the furniture, wallpaper, draperies, etc., the very richness of the film was enough to carry it along. More important, however, was the restrain the director showed in depicting their growing love and the feeling of unrequitedness the viewer is left with as the years move along toward Hong Kong’s tumultuous late-’60s. Unlike Hollywood films, the characters behave with the restraint one would logically expect given their circumstances. The two lovers grow further apart by miles and the directions their lives take them, but never forget the secret that was their love for a brief time in a rainy city that will never again be what it once was.
I had time before my next scheduled film to spend a lovely afternoon with my friend Patti Kim. She was kind enough to take me through Kensington Market, an area famous for its open-air produce markets. We ate at a fine vegetarian Chinese restaurant and chatted for some time. After we ate, we stopped at a health food grocery store where Patti took it upon herself to step on the grumpy store cat, which let out an ear-piercing shriek and vanished under the counter. Bad Patti. We ended our time together with ice cream and talked as the air grew colder and the winds picked up.
Only Theresa and I bothered with Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream at the Varsity that night. The characters in Aronofsky’s film overdose on drugs. For most of them, it is heroin. For one, it is diet pills (speed). The characters pay the price of their addictions. Sadly, the film, too, suffers from an addiction: a reliance on gimmicky visual effects. And like the characters whose lives it puts on display, the film overdoses on its excesses.
From the opening scene, shot in split-screen, in which Harry (played by Jared Leto) “borrows” his mother’s (Ellen Burstyn) television so that he can hock it to score dope, one is informed that the (over-)stylization that worked so well in Aronofsky’s freshman effort, Pi (see CdC #9), would again be on display (yet on a significantly higher budget). The story concerns four characters: Sara Goldfarb, a lonely old woman who thinks she is going to appear on television and winds up addicted to diet pills in a effort to slim-down for her appearance. Harry is Sara’s son, a junkie with the hopes of scoring big with his partner, Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), then selling the junk back to other addicts on the street while raking in the dough themselves. Marion (Jennifer Connelly) is Harry’s girlfriend, the daughter of a well-to-do family in the garment business with the hopes of opening her own clothing store and the reality of a worsening habit. Each character finds his or her self in the increasingly demanding grip of their respective addictions. The world closes in as their dreams die and their only focus is on the further consumption of that which kills them.
The film was scripted by director Aronofsky and the novel’s author, Hubert Selby, Jr. (who has a bit role as a leering prison guard). The plot remains faithful to that of the source novel, with concessions for the change in time period (while the novel was published in 1978, it takes place in a timeless world). Thus, superficially, it fares well on the merits of its attempt to adapt a harsh and unrelenting novel to the screen while not making test screening concessions to leave the viewer with any sense of hope. In the end, each character has entered their own personal hell. All seem left without relief, separated and destroyed by the choices they made. Sadly, however, it is the film’s structure, its over-emphasis on visual effects, that is its downfall.
Aronofsky loves the visual medium and explores it with the enthusiasm of an MTV video director. The film features over 2,500 cuts, sped-up film, split-screen effects, CGI work and a host of other gimmicks that only serve to distract the viewer from the very human stories unfolding on the screen. Trickery used well can drive home a feeling or sensation unfamiliar to some (like the rush of a drug mainlined into a vein). Trickery used as a crutch in order to relate a story makes a very serious film about a serious issue (a human issue, not an abstraction of law or social mores) into a 102 minute techno video complete with Clint Mansell (formerly of Pop Will Eat Itself) score.
Requiem works best when it stops to allow its characters the chance to talk to one another. When Harry visits his mother to tell her he bought her a new television to make up for all the grief he has caused her and soon realizes that, like him, she is strung out, they have an exchange that carries with it great emotion and intensity. Given the opportunity to at last hear these characters open up and speak, we begin to empathize with them and their plight. This scene makes their ultimate and very lonely fates all-the-more painful to witness during the film’s extended and beautifully executed climax. It’s a damn shame that Aronofsky doesn’t give us more effective moments like this (and when Marion and Harry share an intimate moment together) instead of constantly deluging us in his consummate skill of manipulating reality into a junkie’s perception.
The film ends with each character alone with themselves and comfortedif at allby the delusions that are their dreams. Most telling of all is Marion, who has returned from a painfully humiliating gang-bang with her prize: a tiny bag of dope. She reclines on her couch and smiles, cradling the bag to her breast like her true love. As she curls into a (temporarily) contented fetal position, we see the table and floor beside her is littered with the fashion magazines she once used to plan out her store and clothing line. The magazines, her aspirations, lay torn and strewn about.
Aronofsky shows us a world of addiction a continent away from the heroin-chic of Trainspotting. But like Trainspotting, it puts its visual flare to the foreground and the humanity somewhere behind it, occasionally peeking through the cracks like a dream sadly unrealized.
Day 8: Thursday, September 14, 2000
We were up early for Tom Tykwer’s The Princess and the Warrior, the follow-up to the immensely popular Run Lola Run. Tykwer has taken a conscious step away from the hyper-pacing of Lola to deliver a slower, somewhat more meditative film that still delivers the requisite gun play and stylized violence of contemporary cinema. Franka Potente plays a mental hospital staff nurse who finds herself in love with the man responsible for her getting hit by a truck yet who saves her life through a quick tracheotomy involving a penknife and a straw (a guaranteed groan-inducer). From there she is obsessed with him and finds herself drawn into his world of crime (what else?) that culminates in an extendedand by my estimation, sillyclimax.
Sure, guns are cool and love conquers all. Sure, Tykwer has style to spare. While others enjoyed this, I found it entertaining yet ultimately too convoluted, long and hollow for me.
The rain fell hard and grey upon the city as I ran between raindrops to catch a favorite film of mine, Nicolas Roeg & Donald Cammell’s Performance. There is nothing I can say about this film that hasn’t been said better by others.
I met up with Debby for the last time and had a nice afternoon and meal of Korean food with her. I saw her off in the pouring rain, not knowing when we would be able to spend time together again. Then it was off to meet everyone else at the Varsity for Lou Ye’s Suzhou River which I initially enjoyed but eventually fell asleep during due to absolute exhaustion. I slept leaning forward, which wrecked my neck for the next few days.
Half asleep and mostly delirious, I was one grumpy creep when I returned to the hotel room. I’m glad I didn’t have to sleep with me.
Day 9: Friday, September 15, 2000
I awoke on our last full day in Toronto with a mix of sadness about leaving a city and fast-paced lifestyle I was enjoying so much and anticipation to return to everyone and everything back at home. The first film of the day for me wasn’t until 6 P.M., so I had some time to play with before what stood to be a long night of cinema (The first of a projected three films was over three-and-a-half hours long!).
I started the day by meeting Patti Kim at the KOS diner on College Street. It was nice to see her again. She was a vivacious person, and a joy to spend time with. After a long breakfast, we stopped at Good for Her, the women’s book and sex toy store she worked at. The night before was the annual Toronto women’s bathhouse party. Unfortunately for the women who waited all year for free lap dances and the rare opportunity to indulge in the acts of public wanton sexuality only the boys seem to be able to get away with, da pigs came out in response to a “complaint”. (“Officer, them dykes is having sex with each other and not us!”) Thus, some of the naughtier activities (like the aforementioned lap dances) had to be aborted. In the end, the cops got the addresses of some of the event’s organizers, one of whom owns the store where Patti works. As I milled around inspecting devil-shaped vibrators and a simply fab set of strap-ons, the owner called to tell Patti to make a few select items vanish from the shelves.
I met up with Theresa, Travis and Jim for our farewell dinner at Spring Rolls, where everyone enjoyed a fine meal except for Travis, who was served a chicken’s ass for dinner.
Shinji Aoyama’s Eureka is a contemporary masterwork. With a running time of 217 minutes, it was certainly a long film and it felt like a long film. Despite its length and deliberate pacing, the thoughts and images that Aoyama presented never bored me. Ostensibly, the film concerned the effects of a bus hijacking and subsequent murder of its occupants by a lunatic on its three surviving victims: the bus driver (Koji Yakusho) and a brother and sister who say not a word for nearly the rest of the film. This traumatic event takes all three individuals in divergent directions but unites them on a bus ride to the ocean where each character (as well as the cousin of the two siblings) finds what has eluded them since they lived through the murders: a sense of peace through acceptance.
Aoyama works on a black-and-white Cinemascope canvas and weaves into the film’s fabric themes of longing and loss, despair and redemption, retribution and punishment. There are no easy ways out for any of the characters, but as the film changes from black-and-white to color in its closing helicopter tracking shot, we feel that the veil has been lifted and the brilliance of color is a brilliance that can burn away some of the hurt that keeps all of us alone and in pain.
With only minutes before Kim Kiduk’s The Isle was to start, we had to make haste over to the Varsity to get seats. The Isle was a high note to leave on since we had already decided to skip Takashi Miike’s City of Lost Souls out of sheer exhaustion. The brilliance of The Isle lay in its delirious exploration of utter bad taste. The film acted as a collective kick in the nuts/ovaries to the educated and cinema-wise audience members. No other film of the festival elicited so many gasps of utter shock and revulsion (a response the makers of the abysmal Baise-Moi would have loved to have achieved) and prompted many patrons to walk out in disgust. Bravo. What the characters do to each other with fishhooks would cause the most jaded gorehound to curl her toes. To reveal any secrets would be to ruin the fun in seeing it played out in unsparing detail.
A warning to animal lovers (like myself): The Isle features some scenes of animal cruelty that would (thankfully) never appear in a contemporary U.S. production. While the slaughtering of fish for food is something fish eaters should see, some of the fish are partially dismembered then cast back into the sea to suffer. As well, a frog is beaten to death and a bird is submerged under water. I recognize the cinema as an art form, but there is no art form so valid and all-important that it warrants the commission of such cruel acts. I don’t care what suffering humans are put through on the screen, as not only is it simulated, but also the participants willfully choose to take part in these acts. Animals, however, are given no choice in this film and needlessly suffer, and that will never be acceptable in any art form.
We left The Isle gleeful from its depiction of excessive human-on-human cruelty yet heavy-lidded and aching. It wasn’t cinema that killed the beast; it was all the other activities. The air was cool as we walked home. Despite the date on the calendar, autumn had descended upon the city. Late though it was, people still walked alone, in pairs, in groups. I felt no sense of apprehension as I do on the streets of Philly even during the day. Beggars were everywhere yet could be as easily avoided as cockroaches. I would be sad to leave this city but my time here was well spent.
Day 10: Friday, September 16, 2000
We left early on a cool morning. The city gave way to highways lined with trees and then another darker city. I was home.
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