PRINT November 1995

Q & A

on the Toronto Film Festival

WHILE A PRIZE AT Utah’s Sundance Film Festival adds instant wattage to a filmmaker’s aura, the lower-profile Toronto Film Festival has emerged, in the words of Miramax head Harvey Weinstein, as “the premier North American festival.” October Films’ Bingham Ray thinks it’s the best in the world. “It doesn’t have the glitz and glam and bullshit of Cannes,” says Ray, “and Venice is for purists.” Open to the public in a city of cineasts, Toronto provides a unique gauge of both industry and nonindustry reaction. A noncompetitive annual festival with nearly 300 films this year (twice that of Sundance), chosen by programmers from both Canada and abroad, Toronto does seem the most wide-ranging, democratic forum for the medium.

But like the outer-space protoplasm that engulfs a small-town theater in 1958’s The Blob, a Hollywood–New York presence—in the form of splashy premieres, 600-odd reporters, and a legion of distributors in search of the next Crying Game—may be threatening the festival’s charm. With the cost of an average Hollywood film recently clocked at $50 million, it’s no surprise that independent film has become the industry’s new polestar. Yet festival director Piers Handling downplays this newfound interest. “To some extent industry needs have clashed with public needs, but accessibility is what Toronto is about, and we will do all we can to keep that flavor.”

Amid all the grousing concerning the future of the festival, we asked which films are likely to make an impact in the months to come-and which, despite factors that might doom them to limited viewing, deserve a fighting chance.

BILL HORRIGAN (curator, Media Division, Wexner Center for the Arts): As usual there were a lot of good films but no breakout movie. I saw everything I wanted to see—Agnieszka Holland’s Total Eclipse, which fails somewhat spectacularly on the basic bio-pic level but had an emotional authenticity; Terence Davies’ The Neon Bible; Mark Rappaport’s amazing From the Journals of Jean Seberg. One film I had difficulty with was Todd Verow’s Frisk. I was resisting it while watching it but it stayed with me—I’m looking forward to seeing the commentary it generates. It takes either a bit of courage or a bit of foolishness to present such a “negative” depiction of gay male sexuality, especially when any depiction of “gay culture” is supposed to be “responsible” and “balanced.” Gregg Araki’s The Doom Generation is interesting in that way, because it’s his first relatively big-budget film, from Sam Goldwyn, and he makes some very explicit and funny compromises. He calls it a heterosexual film, and technically the story line is a boy-girl thing, but it’s as queer as his other films. He sort of raises the whole idea of selling out to another level and makes it an in-your-face sellout. I also liked Nicholas Roeg’s Two Deaths, mainly for the decor—Romanian high-bourgeois.

J. HOBERMAN (film critic, The Village Voice): I really liked the Mark Rappaport film, From the Journals of Jean Seberg, a compilation film and essay about Jean Seberg’s career. It used a fictitious journal as a device so Seberg could appear to narrate and comment on her various films and points in her life. The format’s full of ideas and very funny; Rappaport seems to have created a new genre with this and his last film, Rock Hudson’s Home Movies. Seberg becomes a mouthpiece for the director, which he’ll probably have to deal with at some point. Otherwise I liked Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse. Tran Anh Hung’s Cyclo was interesting but didn’t quite work. I liked the Claude Chabrol film, La Cérémonie, and the Péter Gothár film called The Outpost. But the film about Jean Seberg was the best.

JYTTE JENSEN (assistant curator, Department of Film and Video, Museum of Modem Art): I was looking for first or second films, and I found several that interested me. One is called Maborosi, a stunning, many-layered first feature from a Japanese director named Hirokazu Kore-Eda. The story is about a young woman whose husband commits suicide. In the first third of the film they are together and happy, and for the rest of the movie she is left wondering why he killed himself. But the story is secondary to the atmosphere created by the film. Nothing’s handed to you; it’s all done in visual terms. The cinematography is especially evocative. I also liked the Brothers Quay’s Institute Benjamenta, their first live-action film, about a school for butlers. It is a powerful, strange film. They were able to create the same eerie atmosphere as in their animation. The acting is terrific. This film is not for everybody—the power relations it explores made some viewers uncomfortable—but those who stayed with it sat there in a trance—involved, terrified, and seduced all at once.

ATOM EGOYAN (director, Exotica): The strongest film I saw was Lars von Trier’s The Kingdom, a six-hour epic made for Danish television about the goings-on at a hospital—it’s a ghost story, but it has many psychological levels. It’s almost Shakespearean in its mounting sense of hysteria. The complexity of the film puts American hospital dramas to shame. It’s shot in an innovative way with existing light, made on video, and transferred to film, so it has a great look to it. I also really liked the American film by Todd Solondz, Welcome to the Dollhouse. It’s one of the most unflinching views of a bad adolescence I’ve ever seen, and it doesn’t attempt to make the characters winning or sympathetic. But the film was done with such conviction that it made a kid nobody would want to be anywhere near in high school worthy of screen time. It was really brave and had a tremendous sense of humor.

MARK TUSK (vice president for acquisitions, East Coast, Miramax): Although no single title emerged that all the pseudo-independent companies were bidding on, like Priest the year before, a few talented filmmakers garnered attention, the best example being Todd Solondz for Welcome to the Dollhouse. As for trends, many critics and buyers noted that the nonfiction films were often more satisfying than the dramatic features: The Celluloid Closet, by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, and Mark Rappaport’s From the Journals of Jean Seberg were good indications that audiences are willing to pay to see documentaries. In the hypercompetitive marketplace distributors can no longer sit back and skim from the crop of the festivals. They are forced to play the script game, buy in earlier, and move aggressively between festivals. Otherwise, both distributors and festival programmers are at the mercy of the year’s output; but if any festival scours the world for the liveliest new films, it’s Toronto.

PETER BOWEN (associate editor, Filmmaker Magazine): One thing that was interesting was the Canadian films—not because they were necessarily great, but a couple had a lot of verve. One was Clement Virgo’s Rude—which one person aptly called a cross between Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames and Isaac Julien’s Young Soul Rebels. And there were two fascinating Canadian documentaries. One, If Only I Were an Indian, is about a bizarre Czechoslovakian community that models itself after a 19th-century Indian culture; the other, Champagne Safari, was about a megalomaniac who conducted a luxurious trek across northern Canada at the turn of the century. I also liked Laurie Lynd’s House. The Canadian films seemed more experimental and more visually challenging than the independent American ones. They also seemed to endorse a politics of hope. The content may be just as depressing as the American fare, but the Canadian filmmakers seem to envision some possibility of a future.

BÉRÉNICE REYNAUD (correspondent, Cahiers du Cinéma): The most important moment of the festival was the “spotlight” on Hungarian director Béla Tarr, best known for his seven-odd-hour-long magnum opus, Sátántangó (1994). At Toronto we were able to see the film as the latest stage of Tarr’s rigorously developed oeuvre. From his first, quasi-“cinema verité” film, Family Nest (1977), which recounts the disintegration of a couple forced to share a shabby apartment with their inlaws, to the sensual, endless tracking shots of Sátántangó, Tarr tells the same story: how people are torn between their most intimate senses of selves and their existence in space. While the urban space exacerbates communication problems, the endless Hungarian plain isolates the downtrodden beings who inhabit it and leaves them helpless to face their internal demons, as in Damnation (1987) and Sátántangó. This tension is heightened by the separate lines and logics that the “stories” in Tarr’s films and their mise-en-scène seem to follow. Tarr never ceases to ask questions about camera angles and points of view, even if the perspective he finally uncovers is, sadly enough, one of despair.

JEFF HILL (senior publicist, Clein & White): Looking at it from a business angle as I do, reactions were more positive on the gay films than in the past—Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s The Celluloid Closet was a big hit. Todd Verow’s Frisk was probably the most controversial film of the festival; audiences were so hot and cold about it. It’s about sex and death, death and sex, whichever order you put it in. Total Eclipse, Agnieszka Holland’s film with David Thewlis, got pretty good reactions, and it was pretty harsh, too. It’s about Rimbaud and Verlaine and how destructive they were to one another. Toronto is a big festival for gay film, so I’m not surprised they were so well received.

PIERS HANDLING (director, Toronto Film Festival): There were many dark and disturbing films this year—Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas, Ulu Grosbard’s Georgia, Sean Penn’s The Crossing Guard. They were all impressive, and they challenged traditional commercial cinema. Gregg Araki’s The Doom Generation is very confrontational and transgressive. I also liked Theo Angelopoulos’ Ulysses’ Gaze. It dealt with the situation in the Balkans, so it was contemporary and relevant. One gets a little tired of films that are simply exercises in style. There was a wonderful, mesmerizing French film by Benoit Jacquot, La Fille Seule (Girl alone), which was shot almost entirely in real time—her first day at her job in a hotel, serving breakfast in people’s rooms, and so on. I liked a film called i.d., by Philip Davis, about police violence and soccer hooliganism. I’m a big fan of Michael Winterbottom, and we had two of his films here. One, Butterfly Kiss, is about a woman, played by Amanda Plummer, who teams up with a naive young girl and starts murdering people—another dark and disturbing movie.

David Colman contributes this column regularly to Artforum.