When scurrying about film festivals, even non-juried ones like the Toronto International Film Festival, it’s best to keep your eyes on the prize. For most, at least on the industry side, this means the much-buzzed dealmakers that will compose the bulk of the holiday prestige fare. For others, it’s a search for the small, unheralded work from the far corners of the globe. The Toronto festival, now in its 30th year, was pronounced midway through the week by one local paper as the most influential film festival on the planet. Truthfully, it’s massive enough to cover both camps, and then some.
If pressed, I’d likely have claimed allegiance to the latter camp, window-shopping for undiscovered gems inside the 1,200-seat display cases on Yonge Street. If there was anything, though, that bore the mark of a conflict diamond, it was to be found in events that transpired just a week prior to the beginning of this year’s festival. Even up to the day I was leaving for Canada, my thoughts were completely occupied on the catastrophe in New Orleans, so much so that I found it difficult to fall into the rhythm that first day. This is the way those at the 2001 festival must have fest when the collapse of the Twin Towers bisected that year’s gala into two disparate historical eras: pre-9/11 and post-9/11.
I wasn’t alone in thinking of these things. Taiwanese director Stanley Kwan introduced his new film Everlasting Regret with an invocation of the disaster in New Orleans. Opening with a title card that reads, “When your city is no longer your city, the right man can be the wrong choice,” Regret is the tale of a woman who stays behind in Shanghai while her family and loved ones flee to Taiwan in the wake of the Cultural Revolution. With a coltish star turn by Hong Kong pop sensation Sammi Cheng, a wistful tone and tastefully deployed slow motion, it’s a tender tale of a city lost to memory.
As it happens, the theme of being “left behind” made itself evident in many of the festival’s choices, both good and bad. Neil Jordan (The Good Thief) premiered his latest feature, Breakfast on Pluto, an aimless, unfunny would-be picaresque that follows the gender-bending Patricia “Kitten” Brady, played with the camp-meter turned up to 11 by a swishy Cillian Murphy. Murphy’s St. Kitty, afraid of being left alone by the sodden blokes s/he encounters, frets and pouts upon the stage of her/his own devising. Jordan never engages the material beyond the surface level, and at the expense of actual pacing, throws in offhanded references to the escalating Troubles in Northern Ireland now and again.
On the other hand, the very best film I saw during the festival drew upon its characters’ complex relationship to how history was forming itself around them. Philippe Garrel’s Regular Lovers depicted the events of the student uprising in Paris in May of 1968 as a moment out of time, after which the lives of its young ensemble cast would never be the same. Conceived as a sort of “after the revolution” response to Bertolucci’s The Dreamers—one scene features a character turning to the camera at precisely the moment she mentions his Before the Revolution—the film opens on the barricades, but only takes off as a story after the auto strikes have been negotiated and the students have gone back to school. Garrel examines the romantic ideals of youth and their eventual subsumption into the current of mainstream society, though, to his credit, he never vilifies the older generation. Hopefully, the film’s 16mm black-and-white aesthetic palette and three-hour runtime won’t prevent people from giving themselves over to its rewards.
Generational frisson was also on display in Noah Baumbach’s autobiographical The Squid and the Whale. Set in ritzy Park Slope, Brooklyn, in the mid-’80s, it charts the dissolution of an intellectual marriage, and finds the two young sons each siding with a separate parent. Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming set the template for a certain type of hilarious, hyper-literate vitriol; this is his portrait of the artist as an even younger man. It’s worth mentioning that this project predates his recent collaboration with Wes Anderson, but it still registers as a tighter, edgier version of The Royal Tenenbaums, with a terrific turn by Jeff Bridges as the arrogant, eloquent paterfamilias.
An even more destructive nuclear family crumbles away in Terry Gilliam’s latest film. Fresh from his middling, Brothers Weinstein production of The Brothers Grimm, Gilliam was in town to drum up support for Tideland. Unfortunately, due to some negative word of mouth and a healthy number of screening walk-outs—the film is about a young girl who retreats into a fantasy world after the deaths of her junkie parents—it looks like he’ll have his work cut out for him. And while it’s a fascinating piece of work, moving skillfully between icky creep-out moments and darling childhood whimsy, there’s no denying it may be too dark to be a kids’ movie and too lovingly fantastic for the midnight madness crowd.
Tideland wasn’t the only film to feature skillfully employed tonal shifts. Larry Clark’s latest feature, the oddly titled Wassup Rockers, opens in familiar territory, with leering footage of a pack of young Hispanic skaters who clash with blacks in South Central L.A. The film would be a documentary if its segments weren’t so obviously (and poorly) staged. I am constitutionally wary of Clark’s tactics, and was on walk-out alert for the first half-hour or so, but before long the film switches gears and follows the boys to Beverly Hills, where they skate and get harassed by cops and rich people. It’s ultimately a warm portrait of a sadly under-represented group, and well worth taking a chance on.