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A Look Back at the Toronto International Film Festival: Part One: An online exclusive

An online exclusive

Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

(Warner Bros)


Thursday, September 20, 2007

By Patrick Z. McGavin

The Toronto International Film Festival was the first major film festival I ever attended. My first time was September 1989, and it was exhilarating to be caught up in the moment — the intense and exhausting historical divide between Tiananmen Square and the fall of the Berlin Wall. This was also before the advent of the Internet and the accelerated news cycles. Festivals were by their nature a more immersive experience, encouraging one to simply get lost.

Back then, the festival was subtitled the Festival of Festivals. Unlike Sundance and the major European festivals, Toronto does not impanel a jury to issue awards. It has the timing, advantage and cachet to cull titles from the top festivals. Toronto’s great appeal was to catch up to the world, and find the best titles that played Berlin, Cannes and Venice. With some 345 films unfolding over a 10-day screening schedule, Toronto is a make-it-yourself place. If you want the festival art cinema, it’s here. The culturally approved, middlebrow Hollywood entertainment is constant. American independent films seemingly fill up every space.

Each festival has its own rhythms. The location and landscape endows each festival with something particular and precise. Cannes is manic and steeped in adrenaline — no doubt the hot Mediterranean air contributing to the sense of the surreal and the outrageous. Berlin is a ghost town, a city scarred by history and politics. Toronto was always egalitarian and elastic enough to impose its own rules and order. Film festivals, it must be noted, have their roots in fascist ideology: The very first one, Venice, was initiated by Benito Mussolini to demonstrate the alleged superiority of the Italian system. In Tender Is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s weary observer notes that the difference between the French and Italians is that the French all imagine they’re Napoleon, and the Romans believe they’re Jesus Christ.

Unlike Cannes, Berlin, Venice — even Sundance — Toronto’s cultural identity, its ideological foundation, has always been in flux. Toronto organizers are a tad defensive about charges of corporate sell-out and its fealty to Hollywood. Besides, all festivals are subject to their own form of compromise. Toronto justifies its commercialization by saying the inclusion of films like Neil Jordan’s The Brave One or Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton subsidizes the more artistically inclined impulses of its program.

This year has been fairly exceptional artistically for movies, as witnessed by the exceptionally strong Cannes lineup and the reportedly stronger than normal Venice program. Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, rated NC-17, won the top prize at Venice, the Golden Lion (Lee won the same prize just two years ago for Brokeback Mountain). I haven’t seen it yet, in part because the early schedule at Toronto is absurd — so many interesting and quality films playing opposite each other that one is constantly forced to make decisions, on the run, in ways that are not always beneficial. Sundance officially starts the festival season because it’s the first significant festival on the calendar, running every January. Sundance is sometimes a tease on what to expect. By contrast, because it arrives at the end of the festival cycle, Toronto is a way to assess the state of the world right now.

In part one of this two-part report, here are immediate thoughts and ideas about some of the English-language work I saw at the festival:

Andrew Dominik’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is, quite frankly, astonishing. It’s a lyrical and immersive distillation of myth, personality and history. The film was shot in late fall 2005 and the early winter of 2006, and the film has been assiduously, painstakingly arranged as a vivid, textured collection of moments. It runs around 160 minutes, and every second feels earned. Part of what is so bracing about the material is its sense of anticlimax — implicit by its own title — and the anecdotal construction of the script. Brad Pitt plays James, and Casey Affleck is cast as the man who apprenticed under James and then betrayed him. The work has a tremendous cumulative force, registered by the gallery of faces, the authenticity of the period details, the clothes, the guns and the profound sense of pain and violation issued by the violence and death.

The visual design is continually alive and rich, suggestive of photographer Mathew Brady, Frederick Remington (the 19th century artist and illustrator who was the inspiration of John Ford’s Calvary trilogy) and Andrew Wyeth. Dominik finds a compelling vernacular, animating and deepening the work with his colorful writing, depth of characterization and visual precision, like a gun-fight shifting from the tight spaces of the interior of a frontier home to the abstractly beautiful and expansive snowbound landscape. The film is a great deal more than just a reprinting of past images or allusions to other works. Immediately the question turns to the film’s commercial viability, and I could care less. I hold no stocks in Time Warner, and my satisfaction and wonder is that the movie exists.

Joe Wright’s second feature Atonement, an adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel, opened Venice this year. Adapted by Christopher Hampton, the film is faithful to the text, retaining the book’s three-part structure of an English estate before the Second World War, the evacuation at Dunkirk and the present day. Wright finds a sharp cinematic equivalent to the prose and the novel’s mellifluous voices, gracefully locating and giving expression to the shifting points of view, temporal leaps of time and space and, most critically, the contradictory or cancelling ideas of the unreliable narrator of the final act. Keira Knightley has started to come of age. If she’s not perhaps the most technically adroit of actors, she compensates with her extraordinary vivid features, particularly her face — catching her in the bright, open light of Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography is something to behold. The movie’s recurrent water imagery that denotes all manner of sexual release, death and recovery, is particularly impressive.

The terrific young actress Ellen Page is the eponymous heroine of Jason Reitman’s Juno, the director’s follow up to Thank You for Smoking. Page, who hails from Halifax, is an exquisite, fine-boned young woman with an alert, subtle face. Juno is the story of a pregnant high school junior and the emotional and personal complications that ensue following her decision to give up the child for adoption. The film has a breathless, quicksilver timing because of Page: It’s rare to find somebody so young and fearless, with a vivid command and scary assurance. It is fairly obvious from his first two features that Reitman, the son of Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters) is culturally and politically conservative. Both of his films sound and play as though written by a smart aleck from The National Review. The filmmaker negotiates a precarious line between rightist hipster and smarmy know-it-all, and the movie’s brutally uncaring and snarling contempt for the suburban wife (Jennifer Garner) left me angry and cold.

With his fifth feature, Margot at the Wedding, Noah Baumbach has emerged as possibly the most wrenching and impressive young American filmmaker. His elliptical new film centered on an impending marriage — made without transitions or exposition — synthesizes John Cassavetes and Eric Rohmer, the drama built around the dramatic and emotionally painful events of a long weekend in the Hamptons. In her finest performance, Nicole Kidman plays a monster, cold and furious, wholly without sentiment. Jennifer Jason Leigh (the director’s wife) is her younger, neurotic sister. The ruthlessness of their exchanges — the barely concealed anger, class grievances and sexual candor — is absolutely exhilarating. It’s also lacerating and painful, especially Baumbach’s fluid, naturalistic shooting style, which constantly captures sentences and conversations midstream, so the precise feeling of anger or sense of betrayal leaves you constantly off-balance. Just as I was ready to give up on Jack Black as a mannered and overwrought actor, he shows an unprecedented range and vulnerability.

In David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, Polish director Jerzy Skolimowsky delivers a grimly absurdist Slavic supporting performance as a Russian with a death haunted past. The movie’s London location immediately brought to mind Skolimowski’s 1982 masterpiece Moonlighting, about illegal Polish workers in London cut off from the workers’ revolt and Solidarity strikes in Gdansk. Ken Loach’s new film It’s a Free World… registers as a kind of follow up, telling the story of an industrious, quick tempered, bright and impervious working class, single mother (magnificently played by Kierston Wareing) who devises a recruiting agency to staff Eastern European migrant workers, mostly Polish, for London’s interconnected global market. Some friends complained about the movie’s melodramatic bursts in the final third, but I prefer that to the didactic nature of Loach’s work . The emotional costs are unambiguous, turning the movie’s once sympathetic protagonist into a wholly different kind of new millennium monster. Once again, Loach’s ability to find unknown actors — in this case the beautiful, beguiling Wareing — is uncanny.


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