For the 30th Toronto International Film Festival, The A.V. Club dispatched Noel Murray and Scott Tobias for a 10-day cinematic odyssey. Throughout the festival, they contributed regular dispatches to the A.V. Club blog (avclub.com/content/blog). Now that the dust has settled, they can look back on the memorable images and themes that surfaced at this year's festival, and how they reflect the current state of world cinema.
Noel Murray: I love the Toronto Film Festival about a dozen different ways, but primarily because after a week of watching almost nothing but significant movies, I really get a sense of the current state of cinema. During the fests, trends develop, themes recur, and certain actors pop up again and again. It's fair to say that each year's TIFF program documents what the global film community thinks is important, both aesthetically and in terms of the real world.
Let's start with aesthetics. This year's slate included super-slick action movies like the French thriller Banlieue 13, high-toned biopics like Capote, and deliberate, pensive art films like Hou Hsiao-hsien's Three Times. Then there were hodgepodge films like The Grönholm Method, which begins with a visually arresting split-screen sequence, then devolves into something plainer and more stagy, like the play it's based on. The Grönholm Method has a great premise, as a room full of corporate-executive candidates play psychological games to determine who's most fit for the job, but once it settles into the classical style of long-shot/medium-shot/close-up, the film gets harder and harder to watch. The script's just not built for cinema.
Which raises the first question: What makes a movie cinematic?
Scott Tobias: To answer broadly: What makes a movie cinematic is whatever sets it apart from television and theater. Is it necessary, for example, to "open up" a play for the screen? I'd argue "yes," though making a play cinematic doesn't necessarily mean making it less wordy, or otherwise compromising the text that made it great theater. Classic screen adaptations of plays like Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and Glengarry Glen Ross don't necessarily hide their theatrical roots, but they're dynamically staged in a way that wouldn't be possible under the curtain. Contrast that with Proof, which premièred at this year's festival after being pulled from Oscar consideration last year. David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning play has been left more or less intact, yet it's been adapted to the screen without a shred of imagination, so it falls curiously flat. The staging is so rudimentary that the film could have been one of those live Playhouse 90 TV shows that John Frankenheimer shot in the '50s.
When you talk about "cinematic," what really matters to me are images. With the rise of digital video and the still-looming specter of digital projection, images have become a negligible concern in some quarters, taking a back seat to budgetary concerns or misguided notions of indie realism. Yet at the same time, technology has advanced to such a degree that photography (with an assist from special effects) can produce such spectacular illusions that people take miracles for granted. Buyers and critics looking for the next Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon generally turned their noses up (or just plain bailed) on Duelist, the new film by Korean action maestro Lee Myung-se. But while the plot may be silly and convoluted, no film I saw at the festival was as visually dynamic. High style is a given in Asian action cinema, but Lee's blitzkrieg of effects (changing film speeds, stuttering freeze frames, and striking bursts of color) are close to avant-garde, and as good an approximation of graphic novel as the movie version of Frank Miller's Sin City.
So what images at the festival seared your retinas this year, Noel? I have a list, too, but I'll let you go first.
NM: I have a feeling we'll have one particular image atop both of our lists: a shocking scene at the climax of Michael Haneke's dread-filled bourgeois nightmare Caché. But we really shouldn't talk about that one.
So I'll cite the expressive tracking shots through the bloody tableaux of The President's Last Bang, a fact-based Korean thriller that contrasts opulent buildings with the stink people create within them. Also the flat shots of dolls being manufactured in Steven Soderbergh's awkward low-budget project Bubble; the superimposed faces of Forest Whitaker and Juliette Binoche, representing the inherent gender split of Christian faith in Abel Ferrara's misunderstood Mary; an unexpected car-and-scooter chase in the Dardenne brothers' L'Enfant; the brief glimpse of a serial killer playing "Where Is Thumbkin?" in Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, and the title objects in The Squid And The Whale.
I also think of two documentaries: the fairly straightforward stat-fest We Feed The World, which contains a harrowing scene at a chicken-processing plant, and the abstract John & Jane, which returns again and again to shots of Indian customer-service operators sleeping in hovels while they dream about fluorescent lights and dropped calls.
To be honest, some of the images I remember most from TIFF '05 were in Cameron Crowe's much-maligned Elizabethtown, which continues to advance Crowe's faith in classical Hollywood cinema and classic rock, in no particular order. When you strive to be the heir to Billy Wilder, you're going to make movies that strike some people as hokey and artificial, but on a purely stylistic level, Crowe has a lot of what I look for in a great filmmaker. He uses the full range of cinematic grammar in ways that don't draw undue attention. There's no staggeringly long takes for the sake of staggeringly long takes. What sticks are the moments, not the style.
ST: I'd agree that there are plenty of memorable images in Elizabethtown—though some for reasons of infamy—but Crowe makes the mistake of falling in love with every shot, which is why the film reminds me of Heaven's Gate, another unwieldy endeavor where a director invested so much in the details that he lost sight of the big picture. For all its embarrassing excesses, it's hard not to feel a little protective of Elizabethtown, because Crowe puts himself out there like few others would dare, even if his warehouse of personal inventory spills over too messily. (It should be noted that a shorter and possibly far different cut of Elizabethtown is currently in the works, though I'd suggest Crowe put away the splicer and pick up the gardening shears instead.)
That money shot in Haneke's Caché would probably top anyone's list of unforgettable moments from this festival, if only for the experience of hearing a thousand shocked moviegoers gasp in unison. Other images I can't shake: My first glimpse of legendary Hong Kong star Grace Chang in 1960's The Wild, Wild Rose, vamping it up (and at one point, growling lustily) to a reworked standard from Georges Bizet's Carmen. Then there's the myriad applications of watermelons in Tsai Ming-liang's The Wayward Cloud, Emperor Hirohito and his minions puzzling over a gift box of Hershey's chocolate bars in Aleksandr Sokurov's The Sun, a deranged Janice Dickenson turning up for a cameo in Larry Clark's sublimely retarded Wassup Rockers, and the closing credits of Lars von Trier's Manderlay, which seem especially resonant after the New Orleans fiasco. I'm not convinced that von Trier cares about black people, but he sure makes a good case that Americans have been less than hospitable.
For critics and cinephiles who don't travel the festival circuit, the Toronto Film Festival is a smorgasbord of world cinema unlike any other, but with only a few prominent exceptions, most of these great films premièred at Cannes, Berlin, Sundance, or other festivals earlier in the year. In fact, if you were to put together a schedule that purposely elided titles from the major festivals, you'd probably have a pretty miserable time. Yet article after article keeps popping up declaring Toronto to be the world's premier festival. Should we believe the hype?
NM: Toronto probably deserves the hype because it features such a broad selection of films, and because it sets the agenda for the American arthouse over the next year or two. But let's be honest. The main reason TIFF has become so important is because it's the opening bell in the Oscar race. Ever since American Beauty went from potential cult hit to Best Picture contender on the basis of its Toronto momentum, canny studio marketers have used the festival to get an early lead. The heaviest hitters still get saved for after Thanksgiving—and even after New Year's Day—but a lot of the names that fill out the acting and screenplay categories make their debut in Toronto.
But curiously, those prestige pictures don't always look their best when placed up against the new masterpieces of world cinema. Later in the year, compared to other Oscar-bait, the staid biopics Capote and Walk The Line might seem top-drawer, because they feature outstanding lead performances and explore the darker side of artistic genius. But compared to the jangled immediacy of L'Enfant or The Death Of Mister Lazarescu, both Capote and Walk The Line look processed and diluted. They hold back, so as not to scare off their target audience of middlebrow movie buffs. They're just too darn prestige-y, right down to their reserved, piano-and-string-based instrumental scores.
Maybe there's a middle ground, though, between awards-ready and hardcore-cineastes-only. And maybe David Cronenberg found it with A History Of Violence. The small-town crime-and-punishment story is too neatly arranged, and too shallow in its depiction of how Americans alternately fear and welcome violence. But it's crackling, accessible entertainment with a simple but effective message, and I wouldn't be surprised to see it catapult out of TIFF with a ticket to Oscarville. Final destination: Best Picture nomination.
ST: That's wishful thinking, but you're right about the ways in which it satisfies as both art and conventional entertainment: It may be "neatly arranged," but that stark simplicity is also its greatest strength, because it situates violence as an essential component of the American character, almost like a hereditary trait. Oscar voters will likely be turned off, but A History Of Violence functions so smoothly as a genre film that it's the only auteur piece in Toronto with a chance for mainstream success.
As for the "importance" of Toronto relative to other festivals, that's definitely the industry talking. Granted, having the full force of the North American press behind a Toronto première can give prestige projects some early momentum in the Oscar race, but as the place to unveil the best in world cinema, Cannes still reigns supreme. Even as North American festivals go, Sundance attracts far more heat from distributors. In the six years I've been attending the festival for The A.V. Club, usually just one or two world premières a year are truly revelatory: Brokeback Mountain from this year (though that technically played a bit earlier in Venice), Sideways in 2004, Far From Heaven and Friday Night in 2002, Time Out in 2001, and Memento in 2000. The other big winners—and there seem to be nearly a dozen every year—are holdovers from Cannes or other places.
But the beauty of Toronto is that it's all things to all people: With 300-plus films on the menu, even the most voracious moviegoer can catch only a small fraction of the schedule, so everyone's experience at the festival is different, sometimes dramatically so. This year, for example, I played a game of follow-that-auteur, sticking to new films by reliable or semi-reliable known quantities like Tsai Ming-liang, Cronenberg, Martin Scorsese, Terry Gilliam, the Dardenne brothers, Abel Ferrara, Park Chan-wook, Michael Haneke, and so on, while taking a chance on certain buzz items, such as Nicolas Winding Refn's gritty crime trilogy Pusher, Jason Reitman's riotous spin-zone satire Thank You For Smoking, and the mordant Romanian black comedy The Death Of Mister Lazarescu. If you apply other scheduling philosophies—like only seeing films that currently have no distributor, or ones that feature Europeans engaging in desultory sex—your experience is as unique as a precious little snowflake.
What's your philosophy, Noel? Also, juice boxes: For kids only, or essential festival replenishment?
NM: For a quick burst of vitamin-laden refreshment without dirtying a glass, you can't beat a juice box. You also can't beat a movie that's connected to the culture at large, made by people who understand that some century-old cinematic techniques—like montage and dolly shots—are still in use because they're useful. I particularly like movies that capture a moment in one person's life the way Noah Baumbach's The Squid And The Whale does. It's set in 1986 and covers the first few months of his parents' divorce, which took place around the time he was going through an awkward late adolescence. Baumbach doesn't shy away from the painful moments, but he also puts them in the context of a movie, with impossibly funny dialogue and moments of rare magic when a pop song and a lighting cue hit each other at just the right angles.
I appreciate filmmakers devoted to rigorous formalism and "Art" with a capital A, and I have a soft spot for big, predictable middlebrow crowd-pleasers, which have a formalism of their own. But after digging through piles of both at Toronto every year, what I'm really looking for are filmmakers who step outside those disciplines to express something true and personal and direct.
And for you? More silent five-minute shots of empty rooms?
ST: Always trying to provoke me, aren't you? As a critic, I don't like to draw too many lines in the sand. Films tend to set their own aesthetic agenda, whether that means a succession of dick jokes or austere master shots from a stationary camera, and I prefer to be open to whatever goals they lay out for themselves. People like yourself who complain about long takes in movies by directors like Tsai Ming-liang, Aleksandr Sokurov, or Hou Hsiao-hsien—all of whom contributed stellar new work to this year's festival—usually harp on the lack of information on the screen. The logic goes, "If we've seen all that we need to understand in a shot, then why must we continue to look at it?" Of course, no one would think twice about museum patrons staring at a painting for many minutes at a time, but most of the movies we see (certainly everything from Hollywood) have conditioned us over the years to have different expectations. Unlearn, man!
As a case in point, Tsai's bleak new musical-comedy The Wayward Cloud opens with exactly the paint-peeling shot you describe: A five-minute take of an empty parking deck, which is eventually filled by two strangers passing each other, one a young woman in a nurse's uniform carrying a watermelon. In the next shot, she's splayed out half-naked on a bed with the melon between her legs, ready for some unimaginably kinky violation from a fellow porn star. Long takes like these are not only key to Tsai's deadpan comic style, but also help enforce a feeling of melancholy that pervades his characters' lives. I'll concede that some directors are guilty of empty formalism, but it's often rewarding for the viewer to be situated within a shot for more than a few seconds and given some space to think or soak in the atmosphere.
As the Toronto Film Festival proved yet again this year, there are many different kinds of experiences for the adventurous. Or to put it in culinary terms familiar to all festivalgoers: Dining on hot dogs and cheap Asian noodles are fine when you're on the go, but if you don't settle down for a sit-down meal every once in a while, you're not getting a balanced diet.