Every film festival has its own customized vanity. Maybe a mite grimly, Cannes hangs on to its monopoly on glamour. It’s harder than it used to be to get big American stars to walk the red carpet—the studios no longer see much PR value in a Cannes premiere for movies they’re spending millions to open a week later stateside anyway—but the paparazzi can always make do with Johnny Hallyday in a pinch. Sundance, of course, is still the ideal place for indie filmmakers to attract notice. The New York fest gets by on whatever spurious sense of consequence is implied by its location, location, location. And these days, the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) touts itself as the place where the road to the Oscars begins.
In overdrive ever since future Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire’s North American premiere here four years ago—The Artist, The King’s Speech, and The Hurt Locker all did the same—this particular hype isn’t to everyone’s liking. It distorts the festival’s real calling card for cinephiles: its roster’s ecumenism, which is quite possibly unequalled by any competitor’s. But Hollywood predictably loves the rabbit’s-foot bit. No less predictably, the fest’s financial backers, both private and public—along with the likes of L’Oreal and Bell, both Ontario province and the Canadian government chip in with funding, and how civilized—are said to think the Oscar connection is just grand.
As for critics—well, we’re working stiffs. Even if we felt like passing up, say, the $100 million movie version of Cloud Atlas in favor of that interesting-sounding doc about the failed U.N. bid for Palestinian statehood, the publications we write for wouldn’t be thrilled by our misuse of their corporate largesse. And it would be stupid to pretend we’re outraged by that fact, because we want to be first out of the gate with our two cents about the big releases, too.
At any given time, there may be up to 15 movies screening for the press. But most of us lucky enough to have somebody else footing our hotel bills—those of our colleagues who actually pay (and then go) their own way, indifferent to Harvey Weinstein’s latest bid for a little gold man, enjoy a quasi-Dostoyevsian holiness by comparison—will end up waving at each other in the queue for Cloud Atlas just the same. Or whatever other behemoth is that morning’s must-see, including the Weinstein Company’s big Oscar-friendly heart-warmer at Toronto this year: David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook, which may well fool people into not catching on that it’s an Adam Sandler movie with elephantiasis and minus Adam Sandler.
In the afternoons, we try to salvage our vestigial sense of idiosyncrasy by flocking to the new flick by the big-name foreign directors we think are God and suspect our editors wouldn’t know from the Michelin Man. But however gratifying, catching up with whatever Hong Sang-Soo, Olivier Assayas, or Michael Haneke are up to can’t exactly be described as a distinguishing private passion. In film-fest patois, they’ve long since graduated to having their latest movie referred to as “the Assayas” or “the Haneke,” as opposed to “the Paraguayan one” or “that thing about fishing.” (Except among intimates, there’s nothing more gauche at a film festival than actually calling a movie by its title; it makes you seem uninformed.)
In theory, we all live for discoveries. They serve a social purpose too, by giving us bragging rights. Not to mention a professional one, since there’s always a chance we can talk our publications into taking a flyer if we’re enthusiastic enough. But increasingly, the rarest experience at film fests is spotting a slot in the schedule with no mandatory contenders for our attention. Then we can bask in the luxury of picking out a movie that no colleague has mentioned and no publicist has e-mailed us about, just because the subject or provenance sounds interesting or the name of someone associated with it rings a distant bell. This year, sad to say, I managed that exactly once—with Far Out Isn’t Far Enough, a swell doc about children’s-book author (with sidelights in political art and porn, which got him in hot water back in the ’70s) Tomi Ungerer. It was playing in the smallest theater in TIFF’s swank Bell Lightbox—80 seats—and man, did I feel chuffed about talking it up to my critical brethren afterward.
Then we all went back to chatting about how lousy Cloud Atlas was. Even though we know Oscar talk is for rubes—sure, we do—we’ve more or less internalized the idea that being present at the launch of the year’s breakout film is vital to a successful TIFF, which is why a certain dissatisfaction crept into things as the otherwise abundant and interesting festival went on. Where was the Big One? In his blog, Roger Ebert—a man I’ve never met, though his presence here every year always gladdens me—did his best to make a case for Ben Affleck’s Argo, but even he didn’t sound wholly convinced that Affleck’s shrewdly entertaining thriller about the weirdest episode of the 1979 Teheran hostage crisis could make the weight. And while I’ve yet to meet someone who wasn’t, at the very least, impressed by P.T. Anderson’s much-anticipated fictionalization of L. Ron Hubbard’s early career, The Master—a cinch to make one of the top spots in most critics’ year-end wrap-ups—nobody wanted to call it the Big One. The unacknowledged reason for that—one of them, anyway—was that few of us thought this formidable-but-demanding look at American delusion would burn it up at the box office.
In other words, we’re cogs despite ourselves. In my case, that’s no huge cause for disillusionment; as a relative latecomer (it’s only my seventh or eighth year here), I never felt that idealistic about TIFF to begin with. But it’s only fair to record that the festival’s founders did. Meanwhile, as I pack for home, you bet I’m cherishing that Tomi Ungerer doc. We’ve all got dreams, and if I can only wangle enough space from my editors, my two cents just might help boost it into dark-horse Oscar consideration.
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