Halfway through this year's Toronto Film Festival, gossip about the festival's hits and misses has reached something of a fever pitch. As far as I've been able to gather, a few movies — Bennett Miller's Capote, Michael Winterbottom's Tristram Shandy and Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain among them — have been received almost universally well, while three others — Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown, Guy Ritchie's Revolver and Terry Gilliam's Tideland — have landed with resounding thuds. By the time of the official Elizabethtown press screening, Crowe had reportedly gone from calling the film a finished work to saying it was a work-in-progress, to be shorn of some 20+ minutes before its scheduled October release. Reacting to that news, several colleagues who saw the film suggested that there may only be 20-odd minutes that are actually salvageable.
If I begin with rumor and innuendo, it is because they are part of the ritual of festivalgoing, and because it is almost always the name-brand auteur films that are subject to such intense scrutiny. In short, in a festival landscape as vast as Toronto's, some disastrous low-budget indie by a first-time director may be able to fall quietly in the forest. But if Cameron Crowe and Terry Gilliam stumble, the vultures begin to circle. In truth, I haven't seen either of those films — though, admittedly, I'm intrigued. When movies inspire this level of hatred, they're usually worth checking out. People don't get so upset over just any ordinary misfire. Besides which, according to the daily poll of international critics conducted by the British trade magazine Screen, Tideland is actually quite popular with reviewers in Denmark and the Netherlands. Mr. Gilliam, grab thy passport.
Continuing on the subject of failure, I suppose I should spend a few words discussing the latest opus from Korean director Park Chan-wook, whose OldBoy won the Grand Jury Prize in Cannes last year, and whose Sympathy for Lady Vengeance arrived in Toronto fresh from its world premiere in Venice. It is, per Park, the concluding chapter in his Vengeance Trilogy — and in that, I suppose, one can take some small comfort. As regular readers will know, I have harbored little sympathy for Mr. Park's recent work, though I continue to have some affection for his Joint Security Area (2000), an enterprising use of genre storytelling to explore the effects of the North/South Korean divide on both nation's psyches. Still, I entered into the Lady Vengeance press screening with an open mind, buoyed by reports from Venice that the film — and particularly its second half — had divided audiences: Those predisposed to Park's work were generally disappointed, while those who have thus far avoided indoctrination deemed it an advance.
Well, I'll say this much: The second half of Lady Vengeance is indeed different. After an hour of Park's de rigeur camera pyrotechnics, cartoonish blood splatter and simplistic dream imagery, the movie settles into what might be called a mature rhythm, with expansive widescreen compositions held for more than a few seconds at a time and a downright sedate pace that suggests someone on the crew injected a powerful tranquilizer into Park's bloodstream. If only the same could be said of his puerile mind. Lady Vengeance finds Park working in a by-now familiar storytelling mode: Upon her release, a recently paroled prisoner begins plotting an elaborate revenge against the man who, 20 years earlier, framed her for a brutal child kidnapping and murder, then absconded with her own young daughter. Put simply, this is OldBoy or Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance redux, with the minor twist of having a female protagonist — something that, to my eyes, only makes the movie seem that much more of a a cut-rate Kill Bill clone. Furthermore, aren't trilogies supposed to take us somewhere, as opposed to doubling back on the same well-trodden ground, over and over again? Though the movie's style changes mid-stream, its ideas do not evolve, and by the end Park even resorts to that old warhorse of making his villain so execrable (which is to say, not merely your run-of-the-mill child murderer or pedophile) that the movie's heavy-handed discussion of the morality of revenge killing is rendered moot. If this is what qualifies as an advance, let us hope for a hasty retreat.
This year in Toronto, I've been sticking mostly to press screenings and, only on occasion, venturing to see films with the ticket-buying public. And there's a reason for that. Unlike most film festivals, Toronto doesn't bend over backwards to accommodate journalists and other assorted industry folk — to the contrary, they view us as something of a necessary annoyance. The majority of accredited press can only attend public screenings on a rush admission basis, while select others (usually from the biggest daily and weekly newspapers) can obtain advance tickets for public shows, but only at a special press box office and, even then, at a limit of one ticket per day. The priority here, you see, as it has been for all of the festival's 30 years, is the public at large — and that philosophy is what makes Toronto uniquely democratic among festivals of its size.
I was acutely reminded of this when I did finally venture out to a public screening, of director Andrucha Waddington's The House of Sand, a visually stunning frontier western that traces some 70 years in the lives of a family living (if it can be called that) in a barren desert region in northern Brazil. The movie stars two of Brazil's greatest actresses, Fernanda Montenegro (who was Oscar-nominated for her performance in Central Station) and Fernanda Torres (who won the best actress prize at Cannes in 1986 for Love Me Forever or Never), and as the story takes its course, they trade off roles: In the early passages, Montenegro plays the mother of Torres' character, Aurea. Then, as the years pass, Montenegro assumes the role of Aurea and Torres comes to play Aurea's daughter, Maria.
But to make a long story short: As I arrived at the Ryerson Theater — one of the festival's largest venues — for the House of Sand screening, I found the entire building encircled by a throng of ticket holders that, if you stretched it out in one straight line, would probably run the length of three city blocks. And as I made my way to the end of it, I saw not so much as one single press or industry accreditation badge, save for the one hanging around my own neck. In other words, these particular 500 or so festivalgoers were there for no reason other than their love of movies — and judging from the conversations I overheard while waiting in line, many of them didn't know anything about the particular movie they were about to see.
There's something else most of those ticket holders didn't know (or care) about, and that's whether the movie in question was having its world premiere in Toronto, or had already screened at some earlier festival(s). I make that point because, particularly in this crowded season, with Venice, Telluride, Toronto and Los Angeles' own AFI Fest following one right after the other, there arises a certain myth — mostly in the pages of industry trade publications — that a festival's importance/worth is somehow directly tied to the number of world premieres it can secure. And sometimes, even festival directors and programmers who should know better, fall under the sway of this fairytale and adjust their selection process accordingly: The screening history of a film becomes more important than its artistic merits. It's an equation in which the moviegoer loses and nobody really wins, because the people who accord credence to this "premiere status" derby are vastly outnumbered by those who don't. At the end of the day, the best film festivals are simply the ones that show the best available films, regardless of other considerations — a point more festivals would do well to absorb, and embrace.
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