A Regular Film Buff’s Thoughts on the First Weekend of TIFF

My second time attending the Toronto International Film Festival has been a less than ecstatic experience so far, but that’s not to say I haven’t enjoyed myself.  Toronto is at its best during the festival; the beautiful Ontario September weather creates ideal conditions for both sitting in crowded movie theatres and chatting on restaurant patios.  The TIFF Bell Lightbox becomes the tangible centre of the city during the festival, as the almost tangible buzzing produced by the coalescence of art, business, and leisure pulsates out from King Street, engulfs the downtown of Toronto, and quietly vibrates to corners of the globe—for a week or so.

Then there are the movies themselves: a wonderful selection of art and entertainment, of comedies and dramas, of the serious, the sublime, and the silly.  I saw three last weekend.

On Saturday afternoon, I went to the great German director Werner Herzog’s latest documentary, Into the Abyss.  The film focuses on a small, confined sphere of society that encircles death row.  It is not really an argument against the death penalty, as the advance summaries had anticipated, though Herzog does mention at one point that he is personally against capital punishment.  Herzog is interested in examining not proving things.  The film is somber and sad, and Herzog refrains from altering the mood generated by the subjects and images he collects with his usual narration, but he still digs away at the truth with the questions he puts to the interviewees.  Death row emerges as an abyss swallowing all those around it.

In the evening I watched the world end to Wagner, the sights and sounds conducted by the controversial Dutch filmmaker Lars von Trier.  Melancholia is a rich and complex apocalyptic drama.  Eschewing the conventions of disaster cinema, Trier instead focuses tightly on two sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg).  Justine suffers from debilitating depression.  You can interpret the rogue planet Melancholia and its collision course with Earth as an allegory for depression (you think it’ll pass, but then it hits you), or you can take it as a literal story about the end of the world.  Either way, the film is visually stunning.  Unfortunately, some obnoxious and farcical elements, such as Justine’s overbearing boss, detract from the artful, majestic whole.  Whatever its flaws, Melancholia is the kind of film that still figures largely in my mind several days after watching it.  It’s the perfect sort of big art film to see during a festival.

(Via The Film Stage)

Sunday I caught a small, dark, playful movie.  Francis Ford Coppola’s Twixt is a baffling, genuinely experimental (meaning untested and playful, not just opaque and irritating) American Gothic tale about a hack horror writer (played by Val Kilmer) investigating killings in a peculiar small town.  It’s a blend of Twin Peaks, Edgar Allan Poe (who actually appears as a character in the film), and a dozen other horror/macabre conventions.  In the question and answer session after the screening, Coppola said the inspiration for the film (one of the dream scenes, in fact) came to him in an alcohol-induced dream in Istanbul.  Being largely about the writer’s process and the horror genre, the film is not a refined whole, but rather an entertaining assemblage.

My first year at TIFF I was so excited to just be there that everything seemed glorious.  This year I’ve started to notice something I’m uneasy about though.  It seems that as the prominence of TIFF continues to rise, two main groups are dominating the scene: those glowing elites on the inside, and the earnest gawkers pressed to the windows, desperately looking in.  Sure, with running a blog, I’ve envied those wearing orange lanyards, and, yes, I did strain my neck to get a good look at Bryan Cranston, but most of the time I’ve just wanted to get caught up in a movie.

This isn’t a serious quandary yet.  Like I said, this year’s festival has been enjoyable so far.  I just hope that TIFF will always remain friendly and accessible to regular film enthusiasts by always putting the movies first.

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Anton is a guest writer from Three Brothers Film – Three brothers who love film. Writing about movies and cinema culture.