Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Autumn in cinephilia: Or how I learned to stop envying those in Toronto and love my computer

This time of year always has a personal significance for me, as I'm sure it does many movie lovers. Now that August has ended, summer sequels and blockbusters are all but purged from the cineplex, barring the Labor Day stragglers like Rob Zombie's Halloween (which I would like to see). Although I tend to be more generous toward the big, glossy productions of summer (which I have seen noticeably less of this year), I am usually very eager to get to the Fall releases. And no matter how depressed I get in August about the state of cinema or Hollywood, it seems that every year I am re-invigorated and my appetite for great contemporary cinema really kicks into high gear. September is not usually the finest month on the cinematic calendar in terms of release dates, but it represents a crucial time during which the overall atmosphere changes. Film news coverage begins shifting toward studio prestige releases and international cinema with the onset of various film festivals. Also, the quality of the films in release tends to upsurge starting in September. After consistent years of seeing great films in the later end of the year, there's no reason to expect that this year will be any different in terms of the quality of films in release; though I should be careful not to emphasize sameness, because the reason why I love this time of year is that my choices of films become more varied. Although I can't see many of the movies I'm usually reading about in September, seeing my favorite critics and writers sound off about them while knowing that I will see a number of these films eventually is what makes this time in particular so special.

The catalyst of this shift in the cinematic world can be broadly summarized in one word: Toronto. Despite that I have never been to a film festival, the Toronto International Film Festival is my favorite for a number of reasons. Along with its perfect timing, the festival offers hundreds of movies and is open to the general patronage. From what I have read, the festival pretty much takes over the city for two weeks. Though I have never been, I envision thousands of cinephiles and critics walking the streets, wandering in and out of movie houses to see films they either may not have heard of or are directed by big-name directors such as Brian DePalma or Woody Allen.

Last year, I remember reading about The Host, The Fountain, Stranger Than Fiction, Shortbus, Rescue Dawn, and Pan's Labyrinth among others. I just thought of these films off-hand, but even now that I look back at them, I can once again observe the shear diversity of filmmaking talent and style. Many of the films that excited me most I have already seen, while others I have not yet gotten to. Still, some others haven't even been released. While each of the critics whose accounts of the festival I have read (including Jim Emerson and James Berardinelli) didn't see all of the films or even a representative sample, the beauty of it is that its impossible see all of the movies or even sum up all of the films with a handful that one person sees. From the studio award bait to the small-funded shorts, each movie is a discovery waiting to happen. It's all a matter of what compels one to see a given film at a given moment.

Here are some films playing at Toronto that I'm greatly anticipating:

The trailer for Julie Taymor's Across the Universe is evocative and visually inventive. While some reports indicate that Taymor lost creative control of the film when the studio stepped in, I'm still very interested to see how this Beatles story unfolds. Taymor is not often one to offer simple narratives (see Titus), which is why I'm curious for her perspective on not just a biopic, but one that centers on one of the most influential bands of the 20th Century. [Update: Anne Thompson reports that Julie Taymor will retain creative control of her film. Thanks to Peet Gelderblom for the news.]

David Cronenberg's latest, Eastern Promises looks to be in the vain of his last film A History of Violence (2005) insofar that he's taking on violence and sexuality once again seemingly reflexively. I obviously have not seen the film, so I could be wrong, but early word indicates that the movie embodies a reflexivity about its themes and narrative structure. That's not bad news considering that A History of Violence is one of the very best movies I've seen in years. Both Eastern Promises and Across the Universe will have wide releases with month, which greatly pleases me, but just about all of the other films screened at Toronto (from what I've seen) will either be released later this year or have no release date of yet. I've already got Eastern Promises marked on my calendar (I'll be seeing it Saturday, September 15th).

Keeping with contemporary American films, one movie that's not getting strong early buzz is Woody Allen's Cassandra's Dream, which just screened at Venice to rather lukewarm reviews. I've come to expect this from critics today. With the exception of the largely praised Match Point (2005), critics have had no interest in Allen for the last 10 or 15 years. I will write at greater length about Woody Allen, his stature in American cinema for the last 35 years, and the image of him perpetuated by critics who claim to know him. If I see one more article about how he "stopped making us laugh", I just might snap. Nevertheless, his films are as interesting to me as any other filmmaker today and I look forward to this film with great interest, even if he's not trendy anymore.

Another film I am eagerly anticipating is George A. Romero's Diary of the Dead, a continuation in his ever growing zombie universe, which he again recently explored in the underrated Land of the Dead (2004). In each of the Dead films, a new group of people and social environment is explored in the same world overrun with zombies. Although his recent Dead movies don't measure up to the brilliance of Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978), they are fascinating entries in what's becoming one of the most intriguing film series in horror cinema.

Other films I greatly look forward to seeing include The Coens' No Country For Old Men, an apparent "return to form" for the once invincible filmmaker brothers; Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy), I'm Not There (Todd Haynes), The Brave One (Neil Jordan), Reservation Road (Terry George), Redacted (Brian De Palma), Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (Sidney Lumet), Atonement (Joe Wright), The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Andrew Dominik), The Mother of Tears (Dario Argento), Sleuth (Kenneth Branagh), Lust, Caution (Ang Lee), Into the Wild (Sean Penn). The list goes on and on and on... But take note of the variety of filmmakers on this list alone: Lumet, DePalma, Allen, Romero, Argento, Cronenberg, Jordan, Coen (and that's just the North American directors!); figures that have in different ways shaped contemporary cinema. They're still at it, and I can't wait to see what they have to offer now.

What I've learned about TIFF as an outsider is that the festival is sort of a microcosm for (or physical representation of) cinema. A critic or film lover can only see so many movies, and the list of movies that one person sees will differ from the next, despite probably sharing a few. What you have are a bunch of different people seeing different films, all with the potential to inform each other with their own unique experiences with them.

Reading about the many treasures has become something I look forward to every September. This year I'll be reading more reports because of my deeper involvement in the online film world, which I am in tune with than last year and therefore have greater exposure to quality online writing. Other than Emerson, Ebert, Berardinelli, etc., I will also frequently visit the blog, 1st Thursday, a site that's about the TIFF and nothing more. Darren Hughes has done such a great job with this site; it really represents the quintessential TIFF website; it is chock full of information about the festival, its films, as well as the city of Toronto, among other things. If you haven't done so already, I highly recommend visiting his site (click here for an introduction to the site and a description of its task), as I'm sure his updates will be many and informative. What 1st Thursday does best though is conveying an enthusiasm for this event that no other writing I've seen has done. Darren loves this festival; maybe for some of the reasons I've mentioned above, but probably for many others as well that I wouldn't understand since I've never been.

The only gateway I have into the festival is by reading blogs like 1st Thursday as well as the reports by Jim Emerson, Roger Ebert, Girish Shambu, and many, many others has lead me to promise myself that I will one day go to Toronto. But until then, I will read the reports and wet my appetite for what's in store over the next year. The air outside is still warm, but my inner-cinephile couldn't be happier (short of actually being in Toronto) to read about the many movies I will finally see when the air cools off and the leaves start falling.


Anonymous said...

Priceless blog post title, Ted!

I'm very much looking forward to Julie Taymor's Across the Universe, too. This woman's a visionary and the trailer looks awesome. Please, don't let these rumours be true!

Ted Pigeon said...

Thanks, Peet! That title just came to me right before posting. And I hope you're right about Across the Universe; Taymor is one of the unique voices in contemporary cinema. There are so few successful female directors in the movie business that it churns my stomach to hear that the studio (which likely consists of older white men) will tamper with this movie. I seirously hope it's not true. Here's hoping!

I also forgot to mention Werner Herzog's new documentary, Encounters at the End of the World, which, from what I hear, involves Herzog and his cameraman in Antarctica. I'm sure it won't see a DVD release for at least another year, but I'm really interested to see what it's all about. Though I've only seen one documentary of Herzog's (Grizzly Man), it was an outstanding film that has compelled me to seek out some of his other documentaries. Speaking of which, how Grizzly Man did not so much as even earn a Best Documentary nomination at the Oscars is further indication that the Oscars are a total fraud. As if token categories like "Best Documentary", "Best Animated Film", and "Best Foreign Language Film" aren't suggestive of that already...

Anonymous said...

You're right: Grizzly Man rules. I love listening to Herzog's voice in his documentaries. He sounds like the David Attenborough of human depravity. It's the voice of our conscious: soothing yet punishing.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Great thoughts, Ted. I hadn't known about Darren's site until now, so I will be heading there next. I think you're absolutely right about that microcosm thought-- each critic who writes extensively about the festival creates his own microcosm, because no one sees all the same movies and even if they did, by chance, their viws would likely be diverse and fascinating anyway. May we both get there soon!

And Peet, you have it exactly right about Herzog's voice. I love listening to his documentaries-- he retains enough of his celebrated disgust and terror of nature, yet he can't help peering over into the abyss with his subjects, and that is all reflected in his tentative, somber, evocative voice-- oh, so German!

Ted Pigeon said...

Herzog's voice is incredibly compelling. I love how he makes himself apart of his documentaries. He comes off as so knowledgeable, yet asking so many questions. The personal edge he brings to his documentaries highlights why the documentary is such an important and elegant artistic expression of cinema.