In the infinitely tangled thriller Memento, one of the great discoveries of the 25th Toronto International Film Festival, Guy Pearce stars as a man so traumatized by his wife's murder that he's incapable of generating any new memories. Life has become the ultimate existential nightmare, with the world he knew 10 minutes earlier evaporating in his mind as if it never existed at all. Desperate to find the killer, he develops an elaborate system of Polaroids, index cards, file folders, and tattoos to collect information and remind himself of his identity, whom he's met, and what of importance has happened to him. (Name the last thriller you've seen in which a man looking for a pen registers as nail-biting suspense.) To make the mind scramble a little further, here's another major wrinkle: The story is told from back to front.
Festivalgoers know the feeling. With more than 300 movies screening within ten days—beginning as early as 9 a.m. and ending with the Midnight Madness series—hardcore cinemasochists can squeeze in as many as seven per day, and those who can't take in at least three or four are open to ridicule. Bouncing from one venue to the next, shoveling down the work of world masters like so many corner-vendor hot dogs (a TIFF staple), there's little time to ponder the three generations in Edward Yang's exquisite Yi Yi before moving on to the two in Barbara Kopple's Woodstock documentary My Generation.
As with the hapless Pearce, time here is one continuous experience difficult to separate in your mind. It's not uncommon to ask someone coming out of a theater what he or she has just seen and be greeted with a blank, glassy stare. Sometimes, weird patterns emerge—one attendee mused that four of the eight films he'd seen featured severed heads—but, for the most part, the burden of creating new memories falls squarely on the filmmakers themselves. To that end, credit Hong Kong action maestro Tsui Hark (Once Upon A Time In China): While it's futile to decipher his spectacularly convoluted Time And Tide, viewers won't soon forget a slo-mo, bullet's-eye view as it journeys through the chamber of a handgun, out the end of the barrel, and into a henchman's chest.
The largest film festival in North America and the second largest in the world after Cannes, Toronto has a reputation as the most audience-friendly of the major festivals. A handful of films are bought and sold here, but it's nothing like the industry feeding frenzy of Cannes and Sundance. A People's Choice Award is given out at the end—this year's winner is Ang Lee's beloved martial-arts epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—but it's not a competitive festival, either. Considering its size, which has grown steadily each year, attendees are given ample opportunity to see the films they'd like. Everything screens twice and the higher-profile items, particularly those star-laden Oscar hopefuls from Hollywood, are likely to sell out quickly. But those who get shut out on the initial ticket buy have at least two chances to slip in if they're willing to hustle for it. Same-day tickets go on sale at each theater box office about an hour before the first screening every morning; barring that option, a rush line forms before showtime to fill the smattering of empty seats. Perhaps the ultimate testament to the festival's admirably democratic approach is that if members of the press (who have their own separate schedule) wish to attend public screenings, their sole option is the rush line.
Arriving at the end of the festival season, TIFF unspools a vast sampler of highlights from other majors (Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Sundance, et al) to go along with the handful of Hollywood fall releases, large "Discovery" and "Perspective Canada" sections, and select revivals, tributes, and special presentations. Given such a massive slate of options, those in attendance are forced to navigate the directory-sized program, which took some ribbing in the local press for the wildly emphatic tone of its synopses. With nearly every film hailed as something close to a masterpiece, savvy readers are left to translate the language for their own purposes.
For a particularly egregious example, take Une Vraie Jeune Fille (A Very Young Girl), the controversial first feature by French director Catherine Breillat (Romance), which was shelved 25 years ago for its graphic depiction of a sexually precocious teenager. Silly and provocative, usually at the same time, it's a rough introduction to the Breillat heroine, a sexual adventurer who invariably blurs the line between curiosity and masochism. Those not frightened off by the director's statement—"The vulva is like the black hole of the universe"—should have been warned that, in program terms, confronting "the limit horizon of representation" is a discreetly academic way of saying, "A 15-year-old searches for interesting things to cram in her vagina."
But no matter their individual scheduling strategies, festivalgoers found common ground this year with the Preludes, a series of 10 short features, roughly four or five minutes on average, tacked on at the beginning of most screenings. Each was commissioned to a notable Canadian director—including such prominent names as Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter), David Cronenberg (Naked Lunch), Guy Maddin (Tales From The Gimli Hospital), and Michael Snow (Wavelength)—for the ostensible occasion of honoring TIFF's silver anniversary. The shorts were unannounced and rotated in no discernable pattern, but by the end, those in for the long haul had a good chance of catching every one, many of them multiple times.
A laudable idea in principle, the Preludes wound up backfiring, at least partially. With the scheduling as tight as it is, creeping to later and later starts as the day wears on, every minute is precious and a five-minute block can leave no time to inhale a plate of cafeteria-style Thai noodles before scurrying to another venue. But the bigger problem was that the longer a short continued to circulate, the more a feeling of collective resentment would grow among the unfailingly generous Toronto audiences. Even the best Preludes quickly dwindled from tepid applause to dead silence, and the worst were treated with groans, hisses, and, in at least a couple of cases, agonized shrieks.
The entries were evenly divided between directors who took the assignment as a fawning tribute to "The Festival Of Festivals" and those who channeled the money into more idiosyncratic projects. Not surprisingly, the latter camp generally fared a lot better, and a few stand a good chance of traveling beyond the festival confines. Cronenberg's clever Camera twists his career-long obsession with deterioration and death into bracingly morbid comedy: A fake nostalgia piece about an aging actor waiting to be filmed by a group of small children using 35mm equipment—a running gag that never grows stale—it smuggles a potent statement about film's natural association with death. Snow, a pioneer of experimental cinema, toys with audience expectations in the generically titled Prelude by throwing a party with loud music, nudity, and violence, then flip-flopping pieces of the soundtrack. There's not much more to it than that, but at least Snow's sound puzzle remains stimulating over the course of repeat viewings. Best of all is Maddin's Heart Of The World, which apes the style of an early-teens Soviet silent film to incredible effect, compressing a feature-length love triangle into a frantic five minutes. Maddin describes his short as "the world's first subliminal melodrama," and his headlong rush of images reveal a passion for cinema that the more literal-minded pieces couldn't capture.
But at least the Prelude assignment was open-ended enough to give the Canadians a little breathing room. Not so the impressive battery of directors—including Egoyan, David Mamet, Anthony Minghella, and Neil Jordan—who agreed to get involved in a misbegotten project to film playwright Samuel Beckett's entire canon. For this one-time-only event, the Beckett estate awarded the shooting rights to producers Michael Corgan and Alan Moloney under the condition that there be no deviations from the original text or stage directions. In other words, the hamstrung filmmakers could do virtually nothing cinematic with material that's already minimalist in the extreme. Good luck finding traces of Jordan's alluring style in Not I, a rapid-fire 14-minute monologue delivered entirely by Julianne Moore's disembodied mouth. And thrill to Patricia Rozema's (Mansfield Park) 80-minute version of Happy Days, a seat-clearing dialogue between a woman buried up to her waist in a mound of dirt and a man largely hidden from view altogether.
The only successful Beckett adaptations slowed down the pace and deferred entirely to the performances. The playwright's themes of alienation and ill communication clearly made their mark on Egoyan, but if his shockingly lackluster Prelude (The Line) was any indication, he wasn't really up to doing much directing this year anyway. The sole atmospheric touch he applies to Krapp's Last Tape was to add a rainstorm outside the window of the single-room set, and he apparently had to write a formal letter to the estate for permission. But John Hurt's heartbreaking turn as a lonely and bitter old man sifting through painful memories transcends the clunky theatrics that mire the entire Beckett On Film program. Similarly, John Gielgud's haunting work in Mamet's eight-minute Catastrophe turned out to be his final performance, a fitting swan song that keeps the legendary actor stage center, under the lights.
With the onslaught of digital video projects at this year's festivals, including a few prominent entries at TIFF, a compelling debate is taking place over the budgetary and aesthetic reasons for using the cheaper format. In the Q&A following her wonderful documentary The Gleaners And I, Agnés Varde (Cléo From 5 To 7, Vagabond) said she loves using the compact digital video camera because it allows her to look her subjects in the eye while she's filming them. "Gleaning" refers to a centuries-old tradition of picking up leftover produce after the harvest, a practice that's now severely limited due to modern farming machinery. But Varda finds a range of people—a man who lives on food picked from the garbage, an artist who works with found materials, people restoring furniture from the curbside—who carry this spirit on in their own way. Of course, Varda is a gleaner herself, with a remarkable ability to incorporate meaningful (and often touchingly personal) scraps into a loose, organic whole.
On the other hand, DV in its current form has serious limitations. Though image quality continues to improve, the blow-up to 35mm leaves even the most skillful photography looking blurry, washed-out, and imprecise. Jonathan Nossiter said he chose to shoot his politically loaded melodrama Signs & Wonders on DV to protest Kodak's monopoly on film stocks. That's certainly in keeping with the anti-corporate sentiments that run through its intriguing story about an American commodities trader (Stellan Skarsgård) leading a double life in Athens, Greece, but Nossiter pays a serious price for his politics. Judging by his 1997 debut Sunday—memorable more for its evocative shots of Queens squalor than for its crippling pretentiousness—his main strength is his sharp eye for photography. But even with Theo Angelopoulos' cinematographer behind the camera, digital video robs the pretty images from Signs & Wonders, leaving only the pretentiousness.
The Dogma '95 movement that arguably started the DV craze with Thomas Vinterberg's powerful and innovative The Celebration lets out a dying gasp with The King Is Alive, an appallingly self-indulgent effort by founding member Kristian Levring. A Survivor episode masquerading as social critique, the film strands a caravan of privileged white folk (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Bruce Davison, Janet McTeer, and others) in the middle of the Namibian Desert and shows the ugliness lurking behind their civil façade. Dogma's strict, back-to-basics tenets were ostensibly designed to do away with contrivance and artificiality, but as Mifune also proved earlier in the year, filmmakers can follow the rules without catching their meaning. At this point, the movement has already lost its cachet—the audience cheered derisively when the official Dogma certificate appeared on screen—and it reaches its nadir with The King Is Alive, which would hardly seem phonier if someone in the group ended up walking away with a million dollars.
For an infinitely more thoughtful and compassionate view of humanity, Edward Yang's Yi Yi—a deserving Best Director winner at Cannes—looks at a typical middle-class Taiwanese family with the assurance and complexity of a great novel. At just under three hours, the film feels like one of the shortest entries of the festival, perhaps because Yang engages so fully in the lives of his characters that the audience is drawn in along with him. Drifting apart due to a family crisis, father, mother, daughter, and son each come to grips with existential issues touching on universal themes of guilt, regret, loss, and a bittersweet sense of hope. As fascinating as these subplots are individually, Yang finds ways to marry them in meaningful ways, culminating in a masterful sequence in which the father visits an old flame in Japan while his shy daughter goes out on her first date. Rarely have matters of the heart been handled with such delicacy and insight, as the older generation and the younger generation stand at opposite ends of their romantic histories.
Led by Yi Yi, Crouching Tiger, and Wong Kar-Wai's In The Mood For Love, Asian directors dominated the festival circuit in 2000, creating such a stir at TIFF that both showings of Shinji Aoyama's 220-minute Eureka were sold out. And most of the audience stuck around, too, as it was treated to a gentle, touching, and mysterious epic about three survivors of a busjacking—the driver and two young siblings—who cope with the resulting trauma together. Strikingly photographed in sepia-toned black-and-white Cinemascope, the film has a lilting, meditative tone that justifies its deliberate pace and excessive length. Add to that solid entries from Takeshi Kitano (Brother), Tran Anh Hung (The Vertical Ray Of Summer), Nagisa Oshima (Gohatto), and Hong Sangsoo (The Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors), and a great TIFF schedule could have been assembled on Asian cinema alone.
Conversely, American cinema has been largely ignored by major festival programmers of late, but the scant highlights at TIFF made an enormous impact. Christopher Nolan's Memento may be yet another genre exercise in the vein of Red Rock West and The Usual Suspects, but it's an excellent genre exercise, conjoining its twin gimmicks with the awe-inspiring logic of a master chess player. In every respect a perfectly conventional family melodrama, the Sundance-winning You Can Count On Me doesn't break new ground, either. But writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's beautiful script about the responsibility (and resentment) siblings have for each other is carried by revelatory performances from Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney, whose high-strung screen persona has never been utilized to better effect.
Just as Memento and You Can Count On Me found new ways to resuscitate old formulas, 24-year-old David Gordon Green's George Washington could hardly be more obvious in its influences, yet it still announces a major new voice in American independent film. Citing Terrence Malick's Days Of Heaven as a touchstone, Green claims to have spent the largest share of his budget on camera lenses, and his visually arresting snapshot of rural North Carolina has a quality that far exceeds other shoestring productions. The obvious point of comparison is Harmony Korine's Gummo, a similar slice of post-industrial small-town life, but while he shares Korine's gift for caught naturalism, Green's vision is infinitely more compassionate and humane. A collection of freely assembled episodes, held together by a young girl's poetic-philosophical voiceover (also lifted from Malick), George Washington follows a group of young, poor, mostly black teenagers through a defiled Southern landscape. An accidental death provides some semblance of a narrative, but only to the extent that it alters the tone of their daily lives. Green gravitates toward the quirky and offbeat, but above all, he's interested in chronicling behavior. In this sense, his astonishing debut betters both its influences.
Kudos to Midnight Madness programmer Colin Geddes for anticipating a theater-full of punch-drunk cineastes when he selected Wild Zero to close the festival. A can of cheap beer chasing 10 days of wheatgrass juice, Tetsuro Takeuchi's gleefully stupid tribute to the punk band Guitar Wolf is like Rock And Roll High School packed with flesh-eating zombies from outer space. Exploding heads, deadly guitar picks, and ear-splitting feedback provide a much-needed blast of noise to end a festival of heavy, portentous silence.