Rambling thoughts from the other side of the 2009 Toronto Film Festival… Did I mention rambling?… OK, good…
Home from Toronto for a little less than a week now and finally, a moment to sit and think about this year’s festival. One of the wonderful things that keeps me coming back to Toronto year after year is that, despite the festival’s broad, inclusive and dramatic scale, I always feel able to piece together a great experience. I find that, by setting limitations for myself, I end up in the films that will resonate for me, as well as those that will be professionally relevant. As a programmer, I am less inclined to hit the big premieres or titles with distribution scheduled ahead of my own needs (although I certainly make time now and again to treat myself to the bigger films), and instead I like to spend most of my time among films that I will likely not have a chance to see again. So, while the Tweets fly, debates rage and the blogs go haywire with instantaneous reactions to the highest profile work, I am finding more and more that I feel less and less kinship with the new, fast criticism. I am guilty of it myself; I feel like, if I want to get out and talk about a movie, I have to write about films on a single screening and get the post up quickly. Under the weight of 5-6 films a day, the task becomes ridiculous. I am not some old-media type who longs for the days of the quarterly film magazine, but I’ll be damned if the thinking on display in most print publications is not far more engaging to me than the off-the-cuff, award viability, commercial prognostication that dominates on-line film writing these days. Like I said, I guess I fall into that trap more often than not, but here I am posting a wrap-up only a few days after the end of the festival and it already feels dated, which is, I think, crazy. I’m just beginning to know what I think of so many of the films I saw and, well, thinking faster just isn’t a way to live a happy life.
All of this guilt hit me during Toronto, the realization that I gave myself no time or permission to enjoy myself, to watch the films and generate an emotional response over time. I think the hustle of the festival, so many people scrambling to so many simultaneous screenings for so many hours over so many days, left me feeling a little cold in the end. Not about the movies, but about the “community,” about my own purpose and role in the frantic crush to pack in as much as I could. I fell in love with movies on my own terms, renting hundreds of VHS tapes and charting my own course through film history; like everyone else, my experience of cinema is personal and unique (which always was the point for me) despite the beautiful collective experience created in the dark of a theater. What I longed for in my work, and continue to long for, is the passionate conversation, the dialogue, that occurs when personal histories converge at the locus of a single film. It could be over a cup of coffee or in the comments section of a blog, it doesn’t really matter, but I feel more and more distant from the satisfaction of that initial longing, settling for consuming hasty proclamations instead of working toward an engaging way to get involved. I know, I know. Wah and boo-hoo.
The films? Nothing I saw surpassed the deep feeling inspired by Jacques Audiard’s Un Prophète. That is some movie and I won’t even bother trying to write about it until I have seen it again, but one viewing in? I was knocked cold. Another film I loved very much was Waking Sleeping Beauty which somehow unintentionally validated my conviction that the cult of the executive (and the cult of business) in America is on par with religion in terms of its power to create delusional worship. What can I say, it was moving to me to watch the creative work of so many animators and visual artists being used to measure the acumen and success of two or three executives who couldn’t get out of their own way (or in front of a camera) fast enough. It is a huge pet peeve of mine when companies spend tons of money to market themselves only to have the fucking C.E.O. step in front of the lens to pitch the product. Who’s the C.E.O. of Geico? A caveman? A google-eyed pile of money? A gecko? The fact that you probably don’t know tells me they are running a great ad campaign. But man, try telling that to Hollywood; people who need their names on everything have mistaken themselves for the brand.
The plight of the animators was second only to the plight of American garment workers on display in Schmatta: Rags To Riches To Rags which hit home for me on many levels. The film outlines the history of the clothing trade and the garment district in New York City, placing the rapid decline of clothing manufacturing in this country squarely at the feet of Ronald Regan’s union breaking agenda and Bill Clinton’s NAFTA obsession. The film is most effective and most moving when it showcases the history of organized labor and the impact of labor on the texture and reality of the city itself. A little bit of full disclosure: I spent a summer working as an intern for the corporate campagns office of the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union (ACTWU, now called UNITE! after merging with the Intenational Ladies Garment Workers Union, or ILGWU) in Washington, D.C. and I’ll be honest, while grunt work was not my forté, the campaigns ACTWU undertook on behalf of workers fit squarely at the tail end of this film’s narrative, so the movie hit home for me in ways I am sure are unique to my own experience.
Finally, the movie that has stayed with me and which I am completely unable to write about, despite many, many attempts to get going, is Jessica Hausner’s terrific Lourdes, a dark comedy about religious exploitation, disability, sex and the power of belief. Sylvie Testud, whom I haven’t seen since Michelange Quay’s Eat, For This Is My Body and who once again turns in a nearly-wordless performance of amazing grace (*zing!*), is Christine, a young woman suffering from Multiple Sclerosis who heads to the holy shrine of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes in the Pyrenees Mountains to find healing. The experience, completely sanitized to the point that it resembles a theme park, is full of small miracles, mischief, sex, romance and hilarious stridency, all of it circling the grief and suffering of the desperate pilgrims looking for relief for their suffering. Hausner, who made a moody, creepy movie called Hotel a few years back (which I liked very much), has an interesting touch as a filmmaker and her isolated female protagonists, always standing (or sitting) on the outside of antiquated institutions and their traditions, are always game for whatever life throws their way, be it the threat lurking in the woods behind Hausner’s titular hotel or the expectations of a small gossipy cadre of the faithful at a resort near the site of many Marian apparitions. All of these days later, timliness be damned, I can’t help but wonder at the look on Sylvie Testud’s face when, finally, she descends into her wheelchair in the film’s final frames. Loss? Regret? Resignation? Me too.