READING TORONTO’S major newspaper coverage of the city’s international film festival, which closed this past weekend, one might believe that the sprawling cinematic behemoth was largely devoted to starry red-carpet walks by the likes of Michael Moore, who chose to world-premiere Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) there, and Oprah Winfrey, blitzing through town to promote Precious (2009), which took the festival’s People’s Choice Award. Even the controversy around the festival’s “City to City” showcase of films from Tel Aviv—strategically coinciding with the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s “Brand Israel” PR campaign—garnered much of its ink in terms of the celebrity boycott. Among the thousand-plus signatories of a collective letter of protest was Jane Fonda, who recanted her stance halfway through the festival. Industry publications, meanwhile, focused on the state of acquisitions at the event, universally deemed dismal.
Easy to miss beneath these several layers of hubbub is the fact that TIFF—unlike Cannes—also sustains a less flashy but undeniably healthy subculture devoted to experimental cinema. Its six-show Wavelengths sidebar feels like its own festival-within-a-festival, consistently packing the Art Gallery of Ontario’s Jackman Hall with disciples of formally rigorous fare: Wavelengths-goers this year included programmers from simpatico events—like Toronto’s Images Festival; Windsor, Ontario’s Media City; and Sundance’s own experimental New Frontier section—and curators from MoMA and the Pacific Film Archive, in addition to numerous like-minded filmmakers. Though the series is multiformat, 16 mm is its ruling gauge, with most entries functioning well within the neo-structural-materialist aesthetic that currently seems to define so much of the celluloid-centric avant-garde: In addition to new work by heavyweights like Harun Farocki and Jean-Marie Straub, standouts by lesser-knowns included Karl Kels’s 35-mm rhinoceros strobe Käfig (Cage, 2009), Coleen Fitzgibbon’s restored optical-printing palindrome FM/TRCS (1974), and Klaus Lutz’s Titan (2008), a marvelously designed silent triple-superimposition seemingly time-warped from the age of Tzara and Huelsenbeck. (Sadly Titan’s maker, a New York–based Swiss expat artist, died only days before the film’s premiere.)
Less cohesive was TIFF’s Future Projections slate, an uneven selection, scattered throughout the city, of moving-image work from the art world. Though there were some successes—notably Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s mysteriously quasi-allegorical Phantoms of Nabua, keenly black-boxed at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, and Candice Breitz’s artist talk previewing her new multichannel work Factum, which premiered at her solo exhibition at the Power Plant later in the week—elsewhere, there were oversights in execution. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle’s video from his installation Picture Start, an already-dubious best-of reel from his work with various international directors, looped in a curtained corner of INDEXG gallery off of a defective DVD, its image streaked with horizontal distortions. To draw attention to Bell Lightbox, planned as future TIFF hub, artists’ videos were screened nightly on the construction site with weak and ill-placed projectors that rendered the minute details of Marco Brambilla’s intricate Civilization, for instance, all but impossible to discern.
The lack of care given to Future Projections was all the more striking given the impressive technical capabilities of the movie theaters proper. Viewers could savor the incongruous experience of seeing the world premiere of Harmony Korine’s brilliantly retarded shot-on-VHS gutter-crawl Trash Humpers thrown onto the monumental screen of what must be one of North America’s most massive multiplexes. Bereft of any clear story or characters, Humpers serves up nearly an hour and a half of a gang of delinquents in latex old-person masks smashing fluorescent bulbs, axing cathode-ray television sets, and, yes, humping trash. Choose your own precedent for this breathlessly barely-there document: Paul McCarthy’s performance tapes, John Waters’s Mondo Trasho (1969), Shuji Terayama’s postapocalyptic Emperor Tomato Ketchup (1971), or Jackass’s “too-hot-for-TV” bootlegs. Indeed, the embrace of such a severely stripped-down aesthetic might well have merited Humpers a slot in Wavelengths or Future Projections—had Korine himself not provided the proper level of celebrity to keep his film just on the radar.