Tuesday, September 16, 2008

TIFF 2008 wrapup (and revisiting the film that won't die)

This fest-end wrapup has been a bit harder than usual to get going on. Not sure exactly why that is, probably just a struggle to balance my more generic rankings of viewings with my more confused ongoing feelings about Martyrs and my mixed emotions about the various controversies the TIFF engendered this year. Over all it was a good year…on average. I saw eighteen films at TIFF 08, a personal record for me (although last year I saw the same number during the period of the festival due to three others in regular theatre admissions) though certainly no record-breaker as far as TIFF regulars go. In fact, I hate to say it but I may actually scale back next year to a single ten-pack and a few extras. My point is that with so many films within nine days there had to be a few duds along with the spots of brilliance and (most of all) the Interesting Viewing Experiences, same as every year.

There certainly wasn’t, however, something I saw that really knocked my socks off. I did give four-star reviews to, and still continue to rave to my friends about, three films: It Might Get Loud, Not Quite Hollywood and The Burrowers, the first two of which at least I’ll definitely acquire on DVD at some point. But while my experience at those films was an absolute blast, a wild and fun few hours with chills and thrills, none of them really achieved a certain transcendence. Which seems like a tall order, I know, but it’s certainly something that’s attainable, that’s why I and no doubt most of my fellow audience members fell in love with the cinematic art form in the first place. While Not Quite Hollywood renewed my love of a certain aesthetic of fun trashy cinema, last year’s Son of Rambow went that much further to tap into something primal in my love of movies and my memories of how the movies have shaped me.

It also didn’t help, and of course this has nothing to do with the festival itself, that the weather was uncommonly pissy this year. In my experience, part of the joy of the festival is the way it eases us out of summer into autumn. You attend opening night in a t-shirt, tanning yourself under a blazing post-labour day sun, there’s maybe one day of rain somewhere around Wednesday, and you emerge from your final screening Saturday evening into a brisk fall evening, wrapping your jacket around you and debating Halloween costumes. I found myself carrying an umbrella in my bag every day this year, and the final three days were a muggy, sticky, tropical stew. Such meteorological misery does no good for filmic enjoyment.

And what of the stuff we can lay at the feet of the festival organizers? I laid off the TIFF board during the run of the fest, but many others laid into them. The Sun had a front page headline on the 6th blaring “FILM FEST ELITIST” and the article inside gave voice to many of the complaints of the regular fest-goers about the newly-established class system and inequities in ticket distribution. Piers Handling frowned his way through a response the next day, some of which I was on board with and some of which smacked of “well, we haven’t raised the prices on ALL the programs.” Unlike many, I’m split on the validity of some of the changes. As for the donors getting first crack at the ticket draws, um, (kaff kaff) I kinda thought they did already, so that wasn’t as big an affront to me as it was to many. And despite my bitching about being in the very last bin processed for the draw, I probably overreacted because a) I got thirteen of my top eighteen picks anyway and b) it really is a pretty fair way to distribute.

When it comes to people completely striking out with their picks, I’m of two minds. With the woman I was next to in line on pickup day who got zero out of twenty, I still have to wonder about computer or human error, however I have no opinion on the high percentage of folks who didn’t get very many of their picks. While I’m sure some of the disappointing draws were due to the donors jumping the line, I suspect a lot of it is really just “you pays your money, you takes your chances.” Availability obviously has something to do with the individual viewing halls’ capacities. I saw some movies in massive, half-empty auditoriums, and some smaller halls were packed to the rafters. There’s just no way of knowing in advance where the viewers are going to gravitate each year, the best example of which is the blockbuster status at the fest of Country Wedding. I mean, who knew? My own rules are pretty firm: as little as possible that’s going to be in the theatres in October anyway, and no galas. Getting a photo of one of the Coen brothers from across King St. just isn’t a priority for me, and I don’t need to hear Kevin Smith doing a Q&A after the second screening of Zack and Miri. So people filled their ticket selection books with the star-studded Hollywood awards bait and wondered why they didn’t get in? Hmmm?

Having come down on the side of the TIFF on those fronts, though, there was still plenty to aggravate this year. There was the clusterfuck of the ticket pickup day, with (reportedly) the broken printer and a three-hour wait for voucher cash-ins. There was the muddle regarding the split within the Special Presentation program, with no distinction between gala-priced and regular-priced SP’s in the main reference bible of the festival. I suspect, sadly, that next year all Special Presentations will be gala-priced, though fortunately there’s no way they can spread that to other programs without seeming completely arbitrary and giving the game away (“Okay from now on…um…Canada First! is forty-five bucks a pop! Yeah, that’s the ticket!”) The demise of the Cumberland as a viewing venue hits hard; though the theatres aren’t the biggest, it’s always been a cozy spot for an end-of-week screening.

And then…there was Martyrs. It was three days ago and I’m still playing it over and over in my mind—not the movie itself, though certain images are sticking with me much to my chagrin. Rather, I keep going over my reaction to it, and my bafflement over the reasons for its existence. In some regards, I suppose it is a masterpiece; Martyrs takes the horror genre to a very specific new groundbreaking place. Whether it needed to go there is another question entirely. The sort of pleasure it brings to its admirers and defenders is yet another issue. I may never be comfortable with the film; I certainly don’t plan on ever seeing it again to see if I feel as strongly about it in the future. But the fact that it’s still gnawing at me and I still keep bashing the arguments around in my head, and I can’t help but acknowledge that for all the moral offence it caused me it was an exceptionally made piece of work and far from the product of a hack…I guess that all means it did what it set out to do.

But is that justification enough? I still can’t get anywhere near conceding that Martyrs says anything that needs to be said in the genre or even film in general, and the director’s studied offhand remark that he views the piece as a melodrama that happens to have a lot of violence in it still strikes me as cynical and disingenuous. That bit of propaganda aside, I’m left with just my own reaction to the film to go by. And what possibly disturbs me the most is the feelings it brought out in me about the validity of a work’s very existence, an argument that before now I never would have had about anything in the entire cultural spectrum. My reaction to Martyrs made me think, this is what all of western popular culture must seem like to the Brent Bozells, the James Dobsons, the Mary Whitehouses of the world. What can it be like living in a world in which every Janet Jackson nipplegate or every f-bomb that slips past the tape delay is as shattering an offence as a young French girl being skinned alive for the edification of a bunch of religious cultists onscreen or an a theatre of gorehounds offscreen? Feeling that murmur of censoriousness was almost as disturbing as anything I witnessed at the AMC that rainy afternoon.

So anyway…that’s about all I can say on the subject. Martyrs didn’t cast a fatal pall over the festival for me, but it did make it memorable in a way I really could have done without in the absence of a life-changing cinematic experience. I did make a number of new great memories this year: meeting my screenwriting idol Paul Schrader, even if only for long enough to get a poster autographed, is a moment I’ll cherish forever. The Q&A for It Might Get Loud was the most rocking and rolling evening I’ve ever spent without any live music actually being played. Asking Wong Kar Wai a question and having him tell me about his latest conversation with Lin Ching Hsia in response…be still my heart. Not to mention the cinephile debates, the blog trades, winning the Ozpolitation handbook at the Not Quite Hollywood screening, and the tradition continuing of uncovering those special gems entirely by accident, the great along with the good and the bad.

Best year ever? Well, no. But still pretty damn good.

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