The Lake (Ontario) Effect

Sep 18, 2007

Iset out on my first trip to the Toronto Film Festival ready to feast on films and spend relaxed, indulgent, quality time with writers I work with, or hope to work with, as the editorial director here at Criterion. And I wasn’t disappointed on either front. As I had been told, Toronto is the great convergence space for all people film in North America and even farther afield. And with screenings stretching from 8:45 in the morning to 11:30 at night, often ten or twelve at a time, over ten days (almost 350 films in all), I’d say it’s more of an orgy than a feast. I’d been told I’d literally be tripping over friends and colleagues as I dashed from screening to screening (sometimes five a day), and that was certainly, delightfully, true. In fact, unplanned, I almost immediately ran into my Janus associates Sarah Finklea and Brian Belovarac, as well as Film Comment friends Gavin Smith and Nicole Armour, hometown BAMcinématek’s Florence Almozini and Adrienne Mancia, and Criterion contributors Jonathan Rosenbaum (L’eclisse, F for Fake, Kicking and Screaming, WR, Breathless) and Peter Brunette (The Children Are Watching Us, The Flowers of St. Francis, Amarcord), and shared some films with them. There’s something magical, transformative, about being in this kind of environment even with people you know well already: a stress-free openness, desire to share ideas, and travelers’ fellow feeling takes over.

Actually planning a meeting is a bit of an art form, however, one I had to become accustomed to but that I was practicing fairly confidently by the end (if I do say so myself!). What people did before cell phones I don’t know, but I’ve never text messaged so much in my life, and I tapped into levels of flexibility and multitasking I didn’t know I had. I’m especially proud of one bravura quadruple play wherein I met with the Dialogues series programmer before his Ellen Burstyn–introduced screening of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and then was unexpectedly able to watch the whole film (a real treat) while rearranging lunch with the very busy Dennis Lim (Clean, Shaven; Mala Noche), who met me outside the theater minutes after it ended. We spent the next hour or so together before he went off to an interview and I, with only minutes to spare, to a screening of Jonathan Demme’s very moving Jimmy Carter doc Man from Plains. Then I firmed up plans for the next day with James Quandt, senior programmer at the Cinematheque Ontario and recently a prolific Criterion contributor (Pickpocket, Au hasard Balthazar, Three Films by Hiroshi Teshigahara), checked in with work at home, and ran to catch Alexander Sokurov’s devastating Alexandra, a dreamy, allegorical tale of a Russian grandmother (played by the formidable Galina Vishnevskaya, widow of conductor Mstislav Rostropovich) who visits her beloved grandson on a military base in Chechnya, where he is a stationed officer. (And then there were two more films—and a dinner!)

There’s only so much planning you can do, though, and pure serendipity often comes into play, as when I found myself sitting next to Elle’s Karen Durbin in the Varsity Theater’s lounge and shared a Paranoid Park screening with her. Or when the lights went on after Hou Hsiao-hsien’s exquisite Flight of the Red Balloon and I was surrounded by a bevy of equally enchanted film programmers from around the country whom I had met earlier in the festival at a dinner planned by Janus’s Sarah Finklea, including Eastman House’s Jim Healy and Tom Vick from the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer and Sackler galleries. A mad dash in the rain and a very lively meal followed (thanks again for the umbrella, Jim!).

Speaking of Sarah’s dinner, for me one of the nicest discoveries of the festival was the surprising symbiosis between our work spheres. The Nepalese dinner we shared with a dozen programmers she works with was not just extremely enjoyable but also horizon broadening for me, as I had conversation after conversation about writers we’ve all worked with, scholars in areas they’re programming in, upcoming retrospectives and the people involved. That dinner was early in the week, and these encounters continued throughout the festival. (Note to self: need to touch base with Sarah and Brian more!)

Then, of course, there were the movies themselves. Among my favorites: the Hou and Sokurov; Christophe Honoré’s very charming Paris musical Les chansons d’amour; Ken Loach’s It’s a Free World and Ulrich Seidl’s Import Export, two films that couldn’t be more different in terms of their styles and sensibilities but that, strangely, happened to share as a subject the exploitation of Ukrainian workers, in England and Austria, respectively (a leitmotif that continued, again in a very different mode, through David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises as well); the modest but deeply affecting Israeli The Band’s Visit and American Chop Shop; Catherine Breillat’s (and Asia Argento’s) naughty Une vieille maîtresse (check out Breillat’s essay in our upcoming release of Sawdust and Tinsel)—and, perhaps topping them all, Guy Maddin’s loopy, brilliant, kind-of-autobiographical “docu-fantasia” My Winnipeg. I’ve been a fan of Maddin’s for a long time, both of his films and his cinephilic writing, and was well aware of his particular attraction to Hollywood B and genre films when I asked him to contribute to our recent Ace in the Hole release (he chose to write on Kirk Douglas and his character Chuck Tatum, the model for the “chest-thumping Americaner” in The Saddest Movie in the World, he says). Noir is a favorite subject, and pastime, of mine too, and I was surprised and thrilled to find Detour’s Ann Savage, “playing” his mother, in My Winnipeg. At the screening in the beautiful Wintergarden theater, Maddin explained the coup. He was talking with a friend in Los Angeles when he was planning the project, he recounted, and offhandedly said that he wished Ann Savage were alive to reenact his mother. Why, she is in fact alive, and well, and was just at my wedding, his friend said. And thus was an eighty-six-year-old noir goddess resurrected by a loving fan. My Winnipeg just got picked up in the U.S. Don’t miss it!