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Back from Toronto with no time to catch my breath before heading to New York for IFP, it’s time to end the radio silence and share my thoughts about my time in Toronto. How my colleagues find the time to watch 4 or 5 films a day, meander to two to three party/receptions a day, AND write passionate, well considered reflections on the films they’ve been watching escapes me.

At the same time, I remained preoccupied with closing out the program guide for the 20th Annual OUT ON FILM which returns to Midtown Atlanta from October 11-18.

North of the border, I was especially frustrated by my computer’s stubborn refusal to cooperate with the Wi-Fi connections. I hate a PC.

While most industry folks showed no compunction about firing up their iPhones, Blackberries, Sidekicks, and other glowing devices during screenings, I felt decidedly Luddite. My internet access was limited to the press lounge–an oasis lined with Macs… Sufficient for checking email and putting out fires, but not the ideal setting to write something thoughtful.

When asked “How was your Toronto?”, my best answer is tumultuous.

The festival remains a true inspiration to movie lovers, cinephiles, film programmers, festival folks, journalists, gossip mongers and bloggers, as well as PR and marketing firms keen to launch a film or a product (is there a difference to them?), and industry scouts in searching for the gems in this year’s crop.

The festival’s mission–“to transform the way people see the world” is ambitious. It’s vision–“to lead the world in creative and cultural discovery through the moving image” is awe inspiring.

Like every major festival, Toronto also brings out the worst element–in addition to the aforementioned fireflies, this festival also attracts green flies who buzz around spreading fecal matter in their wake.

Where I personally found shelter from the artistes de merde was in a handful of great one-on-one meetings with good friends–some old, some new. Genuine conversations about cinema. Stimulating debates about films. Catching up, in a buzz free, and real way. If the mission of the festival is to transform the way people see the world, the proof of this lies not in the quality and experience of watching the films themselves, but rather in making meaningful connections in the world once the credits clear the screen.

Such great moments remain the highlight of my time in Toronto. And I wanted to thank those with whom I managed to meet.

Would that we had more quality time to spend with other good guys along the way. I regret is that I only spotted folks like Eugene Hernandez, Tom Hall, Mary Ann Hult, Graham Legatt, Jimmy Israel, Basil Tsiokos, Christian Gaines, Brian Gordon, Todd Hitchcock and so many others in passing. (One especially hilarious encounter, worthy of Curb Your Enthusiasm treatment found one of my friends engaged in a lengthy cel phone call, giving me the 1 sec sign, and then…moments later, by the time they were freed from their call, I was equally ensnared in a call on my end, returning the 1 sec sign….the moment passed, and we never had a chance to talk…)

Of the many films I saw, I only intend to write about a few programs that were especially meaningful to me:

EVERYTHING TO GAIN: A CONVERSATION WITH JIMMY AND ROSALYNN CARTER–was a life changing experience. As a resident of Atlanta, I drive past the Carter Center daily–and while I was aware of some of the Center’s good deeds, the conversation brought to light just how significant and far-reaching the former President and First Lady’s contributions have been. From eradicating disease, to brokering peace agreements and human rights to working to build houses with Habitat for Humanity , the President and First Lady remain committed to using their influence to foster change and make the world a better place. Their clarity of vision, and commitment to good deeds puts the film business in proper perspective.

AT SEA (w/ POOL and WHAT THE WATER SAID) played in the Wavelengths section. I was surprised to find a full theatre–given the experimental, meditative nature of the work. Perhaps they were driven by Variety critic Robert Koehler’s plug in a pre-festival piece in The Star: “I anticipate that few films in all of 2007 will be more beautiful than Peter Hutton’s latest.” Convinced that most of the folks there were unprepared for the rigorous experience of a Petter Hutton film, I should not have been surprised when that the three (German?) women sitting in my row saw fit to chat and chortle (even at a whisper tone) for the duration of the film. This was especially annoying as his hour long film is silent. Their whispers provided a de facto soundtrack, akin to the wind or waves themselves, but nevertheless annoying…breaking the meditative mode.

As an undergraduate at Bard College, this is the kind of film I used to cherish. Ever open to new experiences, I reveled in all manner of films, screening 16mm films nightly as a work-study projectionist for the department. From Kenneth Anger, Maya Daren, Bruce Baillie, and Stan Brakhage to structuralists like Ernie Gehr, Standish Lawder, Michael Snow and Andy Warhol, I took on all comers.

Peter Hutton was one of my professors at Bard, where he continues to teach and make ambitious, challenging films. AT SEA is a fantastic meditation on the birth, life, and death of a massive sea faring vessel. Told in three segments, comprised of silent, sometimes poetic, always formally elegant, well constructed shots is a marvel 16mm film making. Colors pop. The massive scope and scale of these vessels dwarf the humans who construct, operate and inhabit them. Hutton, a sometime merchant marine, shoots a cross-arctic voyage with the reverence and trepidation someone greeting an old acquaintance. In the film’s final sequence, we watch a ship taken apart by individuals whose awareness of the camera makes us self conscious as viewers.

It meant a lot to see Peter again, even if for a brief moment before his screening. He followed up with an email:

“My last glimpse of the wonder that is the Toronto film festival
was watching Uma Thurman walk past me (pan left) only to see Marilyn
Manson enter my field of vision as I (pan right) going the other way.
I saw some great films as I’m sure you did. I just wanted to say it was
great seeing you for a moment . I returned Sunday, maybe you are still
in the thrall.”

My memories of Peter’s at Bard include two notable moments, the first finds Peter–alongside Peggy Awesh, Adolfas Mekas and John Pruitt at my senior project review panel–nonplussed by my decision to make a film, rather than write a research project as my senior thesis. He pegged me as a scholar. Not a visionary talent. I remain satisfied with my decision. It was my last chance to make a film with no strings attached–and remains to this day, the last film I ever completed.

The second memory is Peter teaching a course on Eastern European Cinema–a great class in which I was introduced to a world of film making from a new perspective. His decidedly un-academic approach proved a stark contrast to the formal, scholarly presentations of John Pruitt–who remains, to this day, the most influential guiding force in my love of cinema. Peter’s class offered a film maker’s perspective–peppered with personal anecdotes about the time and his own journeys. His film making is entirely visual, and his approach to the films reflected this sensibility. I first saw CLOSELY WATCHED TRAINS in his class. And loved it.

It was equally revelatory seeing the film again, at TIFF introduced by Ken Loach. The conversations screenings are always a highlight of Toronto, and this screening, along with two amazing presentations by national treasure Peter Bogdanovich took me back to the Halcyon days. Bogdanovich’s spot-on impersonations of Ford, Welles, Renoir, and Hawks brought film history to life, perfectly augmenting the pure cinematic pleasures of Renoir’s GRAND ILLUSION and a long lost John Ford film BUCKING BROADWAY.

Finally, I would be remiss without commenting on Werner Herzog’s ENCOUNTERS AT THE EDGE OF THE WORLD and Tom Hall’s comments on the film.

Always spot on, Tom finds the film a slight Herzog work. A Herzog aficionado, Tom concludes, “Not every film needs to be equally profound.”

Perhaps it was my state of mind, but I was especially moved by the film–especially the sequence Tom describes as “Brilliant”:

A stand-out moment features a lone penguin, racing inland toward the continent’s mountains with his wings spread as if he were embracing some invisible force, as he is headed for a certain death. Herzog interprets the act as one of “madness”, as if the penguin were consciously rejecting the monotony and conformity of life among the penguin colony.

Herzog seems especially intrigued by the mad penguin. From the beginning of the film, he is defiant, making clear he is determined not make a cute film like MARCH OF THE PENGUINS.

Watching the penguin stubbornly waddle towards the mountains, away from the colony, away from the water, away from any food source struck me as a profound metaphor for Herzog’s own career–and indeed everyone compelled follow their independent vision, rather than navigate a well worn path.

Herzog’s river-of-consciousness narration assures us that attempts to redirect the penguin would be in vain. The mad penguin would renew his disastrous course of action, towards certain death. With one obvious advantage to being alone in the Antarctic: no green flies.

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