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Toronto International Film Festival, Day Two: from Penn & Teller’s ‘Tim’s Vermeer’ and Fiennes’ ‘Invisible Woman’ to Reitman’s ‘Boogie Nights’

Toronto International Film Festival, Day Two: from Penn & Teller's 'Tim's Vermeer' and Fiennes' 'Invisible Woman' to Reitman's 'Boogie Nights'

An almost perfect film festival day, including two excellent documentaries, one feature that surprised and delighted me, another that was interesting and novel, and one of Jason Reitman’s patented table reads: the cherry on a sundae.  

Began with “Tim’s Vermeer,” the documentary about a wealthy, eccentric multi-millionaire, Tim Jensen, who spends lots of money and time trying to duplicate a Vermeer by using a camera obscura and mirror contraption. The movie is directed by Teller and features jovial, whimsical commentary by Penn Jillette. Others have speculated that the genius of Vermeer was assisted by technological means, including Philip Steadman in his book “Vermeer’s Camera” and David Hockney in “Secret Knowledge.”  I find it odd that no contemporary accounts, or usage of such techniques by other, later artists, has come down to us. Plus, so what, I says, so what — does it matter how masterpieces are achieved, as long as they exist?  Jensen indeed duplicates, with some verisimilitude but less artistry, a “Vermeer,” tediously but tenaciously.  The most poignant moment? Displaying the completed “Vermeer” in a room decorated in a risible combination of bad taste and no taste: a shiny mantel of cheap new wood, dried flowers, a bench upholstered in fake leopard.  Oy.

Segued to “The Invisible Woman,” directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes as Charles Dickens, about the love affair Dickens carried on with actress Nelly Ternan, begun when she was 17 and the long-married (and father of ten) Dickens was 45. I had skipped seeing it at Telluride in favor of what I thought would be more ambitious fare. In fact, everything about “The Invisible Woman” surprised and delighted me: the unsentimental and original conceptions of the many nicely delineated characters, the witty script by Avi Morgan, the lavish settings and costumes.  From the first long shot of the older Nelly striding along a beach, which looked like a Caillebotte (still thinking in painterly terms, a holdover from “Tim’s Vermeer”), I was completely enthralled. 

Directly to a documentary by Chuck Workman, “What is Cinema?”, the kind of overloaded, overstuffed, slick, quick-cut clip show that will remind some people of why they are obsessed with movies, and can serve as a seductive invitation and initiation to others.  Workman combines over 200 film clips (ranging from silents to contemporary experimental films and videos) with snippets of new interviews with David Lynch, Kelly Reichardt, Michael Moore, Jonas Mekas, Ken Jacobs, Costa-Gavras, Bill Viola, and Mike Leigh, archival footage of Bresson, Herzog, John Ford, Hitchcock, Kurosawa, and Chantal Ackerman, and overlays the whole with graphics and tasty quotes from yet more auteurs, including Bergman, Fellini, like that.  It’s only 83 minutes long, and it’s the kind of overegged pudding that I could have eaten much more of.  

The hell of it was that I had to rush out before the onstage conversation with Workman in order to beat it over to the Ryerson Theatre to get into the longest line I’ve ever stood in for Jason Reitman’s second annual table read, with a surprise cast of actors, to do a live reading of “Boogie Nights.” Reitman started the table reads several years ago with Elvis Mitchell at the Film Independent series at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; they sell out as soon as they’re announced, and have included an all-black “Reservoir Dogs” with Terrence Howard, Anthony Mackie, and Cuba Gooding Jr.; an all-female “Glengarry Glen Ross,” with Robin Wright, Catharine O’Hara, Maria Bello, and Allison Janney, and a “Big Lebowski” with a celebrated turn by Seth Rogen as the Dude.  Living as I now do 350 miles north of Los Angeles, I’ve never made it to a Reitman table read there, so many thanks to TIFF for giving me a taste.  

The “Boogie Nights” cast included Josh Brolin as Jack (Burt Reynolds), Olivia Wilde as Amber Waves (Julianne Moore), Jesse Eisenberg as Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), Jason Sudeikis as Buck (Don Cheadle), and Dakota Fanning as Rollergirl (Heather Graham). A good time was had by all, especially Reitman, who handled the narration duties but also was his cast’s best audience, cracking up frequently at certain niceties of expression or performance. It wasn’t quite the revelation that last year’s “American Beauty” read had been, in which both Bryan Cranston (in the Kevin Spacey part) and Adam Driver (in the Wes Bentley role) had created fresh new takes on their characters. Only Eisenberg, cranky, whiney, boyish, seemed to deviate from the original.  (Well, Sudeikis only went the ebonics route once with Buck. He still managed to get his laughs.)  The scary failed robbery scene lost most of its power, lacking not only Alfred Molina, but the combination of too-loud music and random tossed fireworks.

Back on the subway (it was a four-token day) to take in the Robert Lepage/Pedro Pires “Triptych,” which I went to both because I’ve enjoyed some of Lepage’s stage and film work in the past, and I thought I was meeting Fandor’s Jonathan Marlow there.  In the event, Jonathan’s plane got in too late, so I ceded his seat to a lively Toronto psychiatrist.  “Triptych” turns out to be based on a three-character slice from Lepage’s monumental nine-hour theater piece “Lipsynch,” and interweaves the stories of a schizophrenic bookseller, her jazz-singer sister, and the neurosurgeon who removes a tumor from the singer’s brain. Shot in desaturated colors, with a nice sense of place, in three cities: Montreal, Quebec, and London, it was a movie unlike any I’d seen before. Without being completely successful on its own terms, it still made me long to see the nine-hour “Lipsynch.”  But then, I like things that are too long.

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