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September 15, 2009

World Films and the Buzz About Town

Observations from Day 6 of the Toronto International Film Festival

Despite my emphasis thus far on sneak previews of commercial studio releases, I am conscious of the fact that TIFF stand for the Toronto International Film Festival. My Tuesday, through a fluke of scheduling more than a conscious choice, had a heavy international flavor. Clare Denis returned to Africa with White Material, Amos Gitai frets about war in Israel in Carmel, and Jessica Hausner follows believers on a pilgrimage to Lourdes.

The day began, however, with Alain Renais's Les Herbes folles (Wild Grass).

There is a communal aspect to film going that is present in the culture at large and highly concentrated around major festivals. People talk about films and the way they shape our lives in a way I seldom hear them talk about books anymore. For good or for ill, films matter to people, and as a result the relationship between cinephiles and an auteur is often something quite different from that of their relationship to authors, actors, and other celebrities.

Two years ago, the eighty-seven year old Eric Rohmer sent what could well be his final film to the festival (Romance of Astree and Celadon) and the fact that the much beloved director could not himself make the trip to present the film in no way diminished the joy of his fans at having another film. Life gets mighty precious, Bonnie Raitt sings, when there is less of it to waste.

Alain Resnais is eighty-seven this year, and Les Herbes folles could well be his last film. That he was not able to be in the Scotiabank theater to present the film did little to diminish my pleasure in having two more hours in the dark with an international treasure of whom we are not yet ready (are we ever?) to let go.

When wiser, more knowledgeable men than I write histories, I would venture to guess that Resnais will be remembered more for Night and Fog, Hiroshima mon Amour, or Last Year at Marienbad. Film, though, like the music in a Nick Hornby novel, is autobiographical. The experience of it is so intimately connected to space and time that it is held in our hearts and our memories as much as on the tape or the disc.

I was once fortunate enough to hear Johnny Cash live in concert. He was not at the peak of his artistic powers, but I treasure to this day having not having to regret never having done it. When Nick Reynolds passed away a few years ago, my sorrow was allayed with the fondness of the memories surrounding having finally seen the Kingston Trio perform. I'm not sure what I would give for the opportunity to hear Leonard Cohen in person before I can only applaud after his shadow. More than I could reasonably afford, probably.

Les Herbes folles was not, for me, a particularly great film. I found the tone to be whimsical in that cloying Alexaner Payne/Wes Anderson/Paul Thomas Anderson too-cool-for-school manner that generally grates on me. I found the two principal characters to be tedious and totally unsympathetic. I thought it labored in places, and I was restless throughout.

I cherished every second of it.

There are approximately 250 features and another 60 shorts playing at this year's festival. I am seeing twenty. Here's what I'm hearing about what I'm not seeing:

--Oddly enough, I didn't program any documentaries this year. They are usually some of my favorites. My friend Russel Lucas has convinced me I want to see Google Baby, a provocative documentary about the outsourcing and commercialization of fertility. The always dependable Darren Hughes spoke up for Colony, an exploration into the mysterious and alarming loss of the world's bee population. Given that The Band That Wouldn't Die was presented by Barry Levinson and produced by ESPN, I have no doubt it should be airing soon enough on your television screens. Focusing on the departure of the Colts from Baltimore, the descriptions I've been given by those who saw it make it sound as much about how society has changed and what holds communities together as it is about sports.

--Most everything gets good word of mouth the first week because there is an element of self-selection involved. That said, I haven't heard anyone in line talking about Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire who wasn't gushing. (The majority of those I've overheard have been middle-aged, white women. I would not be surprised if the film ends up having more crossover appeal than I was expecting.)

--Screening are always more packed on the weekend, understandably. As of this morning, Capitalism: A Love Story was one of the few early Tuesday screenings that was "Rush Only" (i.e. sold out).

--I've heard from two people who tried and failed to make it all the way through Enter the Void. That's as anecdotal as evidence comes, but there it is.

--Carlos Saura's I Don Giovanni is the film I've heard the most people say they tried to get into and couldn't. Given that the non-gala presentation on Monday was at the cavernous Ryerson theater, I found that telling.

--If you are constitutionally able to handle a film about a sex doll that comes to life, Hirokazu Kore-eda's Air Doll has some moments of breathtaking (pun intended) beauty. (Okay, I did in fact see that one, so it's not just a rumor. The sexual content is more graphic and crude than I suppose most Christians will care for, bit it's an achingly tender film for all that.)

Guest blogger Kenneth R. Morefield, an English prof at Campbell University, is writing about the Toronto International Film Festival for CT Movies.

Related Tags: Alain Resnais, Wild Grass