DISPATCH FROM TORONTO: American Auteurs Araki, Kerrigan, and Solondz Stir Festival
by Eugene Hernandez
Three distinctive new films, from three important established American independent filmmakers, have shared a moment here at the Toronto International Film Festival and emerged as true standouts, confounding film buyers, dividing critics, and provoking audiences. These filmmakers, who made their names at Sundance in the early 90's and have remained outside the growing Indiewood system over the past decade, have delivered mature, accomplished films underscoring the vitality and originality of true American independent filmmaking today. Gregg Araki's "Mysterious Skin," Lodge Kerrigan's "Keane," and Todd Solondz' "Palindromes" offer striking, often challenging portraits of American society with complex characters facing hard choices and life experiences.
In the case of each film, buyers here in Toronto have expressed doubts about how to market these tough, challenging films and even the filmmakers themselves have admitted some concerns about their movies' viability in the current marketplace. No doubt just reading the opening of this paragraph, those associated with these movies will shudder. Reps for each film encouraged me to avoid language that might scare off wary business execs. Are handlers worried the present system might not embrace films that challenge an audience? Perhaps not entirely, each of these strong new movies will find distribution, likely from outside Indiewood, at one of the independent companies that tend to embrace the most challenging work today.
Solondz' "Palindromes," a self-described fairy tale about a young every-girl, Aviva, who yearns to bear a child, has stirred strikingly contradictory reactions from viewers. With "Palindromes," Solondz has sought to explore how the girl navigates that fantasy in a society that is bitterly divided. Her pro-choice parents restrict Aviva from deciding what to do with her unborn child, while later her surrogate Christian parents are poised to kill to defend their ideology. Solondz, in a conference room at the Sutton Hotel on Wednesday afternoon, emphasized, "(This) movie is supposed to function in a fairy tale way, this (character) was going to be my Gulliver, as if this character has lived a whole life."
At the end of her journey, Aviva, the lead character played in the film by a range of performers, encounters Mark Weiner, the older brother character from Solondz' 1995 film, "Welcome to the Dollhouse." It's a character that Solondz identifies with and who offers a speech on the nature of free will and the human condition. "I have a certain affection for this character, (he) does function as a kind of alter-ego for me." Weiner delivers a speech about how it really isn't possible for people to change much; there is no free will. Admitting that his own stance is perhaps not quite that harsh, Solondz added, "If we can just accept, embrace (and) acknowledge who we are, that can be freeing.
"I try to bring my audience to a place that they have never been, but a place that they recognize," noted Solondz during Wednesday's Maverick session at the Rogers Industry Centre. "My movies may be comedies, but they are very sad comedies, and I would say this is the saddest one," Solondz said.
In Araki's "Mysterious Skin," two boys haunted by childhood abuse at the hands of the same man, come of age and follow divergent paths that ultimately lead them back to each other. In the lead, Joseph Gordon-Levitt ("Manic") shines as a hustler on a road to nowhere. Talking with me about the film earlier this week, Araki explained that he set out to create a movie that would devastate his audience. Indeed, by the time the two young men re-connect in a tender moment at the conclusion of the film, the audience is stunned. Discussing that particular scene during our chat, Araki himself began to choke up. "I had never read anything by somebody else that really, really had such a powerful impact on me," Araki explained, referring to Scott Heim's novel upon which the film is based.
"I love the ending of the movie," Araki reinforced, "It is such a perfect blend of light and dark, a sense of the beginning of the healing."
Araki explained that he has already been struck, at screenings in Venice and now Toronto, by the potential for a wider audience with this movie. He's seen older crowds, namely middle-aged women, drawn to the picture. And he has shed any impressions that he speaks for a particular audience or group.
"I felt like people wanted me to be a spokesperson," Araki said, referring to his work in the 90s, "I am not a propagandist, I am not out to speak for anybody."
Concluding, Araki said of his new movie, "People you can't imagine at a Gregg Araki movie are responding to it in a profound and emotional way."
"I have always made films about people who are on the margins of society and are just trying to lead a normal life," explained Kerrigan during our conversation earlier this week. In "Keane," Kerrigan takes us nearly inside the very mind of his protagonist. William Keane, performed exceptionally by Damian Lewis, is a father struggling with the abduction of his own daughter and battling demons as he tries to come to terms with the resulting grief. As the story unfolds, Keane's life on disability and his history of mental illness cast doubts and leave viewers struggling to make sense of what is really happening.
"If you take a character who is either mentally ill, or emotionally very unstable, there is always going to be some ambiguity," Kerrigan said, "I realized that there was going to be some ambiguity -- I did not keep it open-ended as a pre-conceived idea, I just tried to make the character as real as possible."
Continuing Kerrigan added, "People in life aren't either good or bad, some people can commit very horrendous acts and then recover -- somehow in filmmaking now... everyone makes (characters) completely likable and they don't have any contradictions."
The idea for the film came from imagining what might happen if Kerrigan were to lose his own daughter and how, "four minutes can irreversibly change your life."
As of Thursday, each film remained without distribution in the United States, but no doubt all three will find a home, and ultimately an audience. While Indiewood companies may be forced by corporate pressures to pass on such rich, intense material, smaller companies will embrace these films.
"This is like post-graduate work for distribution companies," quipped one lead acquisitions person at an independent New York distribution company. "These filmmakers have thrown down the gauntlet," the acquisitions exec said, admitting that buyers must now accept the challenge.